WASHINGTON, April 26 (Reuters) - New applications for U.S. unemployment benefits dropped to their lowest level in more than 48 years last week, suggesting that March's slowdown in job growth was probably temporary.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 24,000 to a seasonally adjusted 209,000 for the week ended April 21, the lowest level since December 1969, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Data for the prior week was revised to show 1,000 more applications received than previously reported.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 230,000 in the latest week. Claims appear to be settling after volatility in recent weeks caused by different timings of the Easter and school spring breaks.
The economy added 103,000 jobs in March, the fewest in six months. Economists shrugged off the modest gains as payback after February's outsized increase in hiring.
The labor market is considered to be near or at full employment. The unemployment rate is at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent, not far from the Federal Reserve's forecast of 3.8 percent by the end of this year.
The Labor Department said claims for Maine and Colorado were estimated last week. It also said claims-taking procedures in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands had still not returned to normal after the territories were devastated by Hurricanes Irma and Maria last year.
The four-week moving average of initial claims, viewed as a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 2,250 to 229,250 last week.
The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 29,000 to 1.84 million in the week ended April 14. The four-week moving average of the so-called continuing claims declined 9,750 to 1.85 million, the lowest level since January 1974.
The continuing claims data covered the household survey week from which April's unemployment rate will be calculated.
The four-week average of continuing claims decreased 13,000 between the March and April household survey weeks, suggesting little change in the unemployment rate. The jobless rate has been stuck at its current level for six straight months.