WASHINGTON -- The number of people filing for initial unemployment benefits unexpectedly plunged last week to its lowest level since 2006, but the data were skewed because computer upgrades in two states prevented them from processing all their claims, the Labor Department said Thursday.
Weekly jobless claims fell to 292,000, down 31,000 from the previous week. Analysts had expected the figure to rise to about 330,000.
It marked the first time since 2007 that weekly claims fell below 300,000. The last time fewer claims were filed was April 2006.
But the Labor Department said two unnamed states, including one described as large, underreported claims because of computer system upgrades. Details about claims for specific states will not be released until next week.
The unprocessed claims from those states probably will inflate this week's figures, so it could take a couple of weeks for the numbers to accurately reflect the state of the jobs market, a Labor Department analyst said.
Chris Rupkey, chief financial economist at the Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi in New York, noted that last week was the first of the quarter and also included the Labor Day holiday, two factors that often skew the claims data.
"It is a good bet that initial unemployment claims will rise back above 300K next week," he wrote in a a note to clients.
Weekly claims are a gauge of layoffs and are watched closely by economists to determine the health of the labor market. They are even more important now as Federal Reserve policymakers monitor economic reports before meeting next week to decide if they should start reducing their monthly bond-buying stimulus program.
Claims have been trending down this year, from an average of about 360,000 a week in January to an average of 328,500 in August. That was the lowest four-week average since October 2007, just before the Great Recession hit.
Before last week's underreported figure, the lowest weekly claims figure since the recession was 322,000 in early August.