WASHINGTON — Initial claims for U.S. state unemployment benefits fell 22,000 to 344,000 in the Feb. 23 week, well below the expected 360,000 level and the 373,000 seen in the same week of 2012, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Forecasts in a MNI survey of economists had centered around a expectations of a slight decline in jobless claims to 360,000 from the 366,000 of the previous week, which was revised upward by 4,000.

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