WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, but Hurricanes Harvey and Irma continued to impact the data, making it difficult to get a clear picture of the labor market.
Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 12,000 to a seasonally adjusted 260,000 for the week ended Sept. 30, the Labor Department said on Thursday. Data for the prior week was unrevised.
A Labor Department official said Harvey and Irma along with Hurricane Maria affected claims for Texas, Florida, Georgia, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.
Economists polled by Reuters had forecast claims falling to 265,000 in the latest week. Claims shot up from a low of 236,000 in late August, hitting 298,000 at the start of September. As a result, Harvey and Irma are expected to cut into job growth in September.
According to a Reuters survey of economists, the Labor Department's closely watched employment report on Friday will likely show that nonfarm payrolls increased by 90,000 jobs last month after rising by 156,000 in August.
The disruptions to the labor market are, however, expected to be temporary. The job market generally remains strong.
Claims have now been below the 300,000 threshold, which is associated with a robust labor market, for 135 consecutive weeks. That is the longest such stretch since 1970, when the labor market was smaller.
The four-week moving average of claims, considered a better measure of labor market trends as it irons out week-to-week volatility, fell 9,500 to 268,250 last week.
Thursday's claims report also showed the number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 2,000 to 1.94 million in the week ended Sept. 23. The so-called unadjusted continuing claims for Texas rose, suggesting some of the workers affected by Harvey have not yet returned to their jobs.
Overall continuing claims have now been below the 2 million mark for 25 straight weeks, indicating that labor market slack continues to be absorbed. The four-week moving average of continuing claims fell 3,250 to 1.95 million, remaining below the 2 million level for the 23rd consecutive week.
(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)