WASHINGTON (MNI) - Initial claims for U.S. state unemployment benefits fell by more than expected in the August 31 week, declining by 9,000 to 332,000 - a level that is just above a five-and-a-half year low, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

Expectations for this week's report was for a claims level of 330,000, a decline of just 1,000 from the 331,000 previously reported for the August 24 week. Claims in that week were revised up to 332,000.

The last time initial jobless claims were this low or lower was in the August 10 week, when it came in at 322,000. That in turn is the lowest level since the week of January 19, 2008.

A Labor Department analyst said three "small" states were estimated in the current week, as they were late submitting their data. He would not identify the states in question, but said when their official numbers did come in, they were "pretty close" to the Labor Department's estimates.

The initial claims seasonally adjusted 4-week moving average fell after rising the prior week, down 3,000 to 328,500 in the August 31 week. This is its lowest level since it was reported at 328,250 in the week of Oct. 27, 2007.

The Labor analyst said seasonal adjustment factors had expected a 0.7% drop in unadjusted claims, around 1,993, in the Aug. 31 week. Instead, unadjusted claims fell 3.5%, or 9,781, to 268,843. That level is below the 309,537 level reported in the comparable week a year ago.

The state data released for the August 24 week indicated unadjusted initial claims increased in 26 states and declined in 27 states, with none unchanged. The District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and Virgin Islands are included in this data.

The level of continuing claims came in at 2.951 million after seasonal adjustment in the August 24 week, a decline of 43,000 from the previous week. Continuing claims in the August 17 employment survey week were revised up to 2.994 million from 2.989 million.

The level of unadjusted continuing claims plunged again, falling by 76,868 to 2,749,880 in the August 24 week, below the 3,085,324 level in the comparable week a year ago.

The seasonally adjusted insured unemployment was unchanged at 2.3% in the August 24 week from the previous week, remaining below the seasonally adjusted 2.6% rate in the comparable week a year earlier.

The unemployment rate among the insured labor force is well below that reported monthly by the Labor Department because claims are approved for the most part only for job losers, not the job leavers and labor force reentrants included in the monthly report.

The Labor Department said the level of unadjusted Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits claims fell in the August 17 week, down 16,877 to 1,494,742.

The Labor Department reported that a total of 4,395,712 persons claimed unemployment benefits in the Aug. 17 week, a drop-off of 72,061 from the previous week, and below the 5,470,041 persons in the comparable week a year ago. These data are not seasonally adjusted, and include regular state claims, federal employee claims, new veterans claims, the EUC and extended benefits programs, state additional benefits, and STC/Workshare claims.

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