Initial jobless claims increased 1.6% (5,000 claims) to 320,000 for the week ending March 15, according to a Labor Department report released today .

After dropping 2.8% the previous week to a three-month low, analysts were pleasantly surprised, having expected claims to push back up to 325,000. 

Source: Author, data from Labor Department. 

From a more long-term perspective, a 1.1% drop in the four-week moving average to 327,000 initial claims continues to point to labor market improvements. This is the third consecutive cut for the four-week moving average. Both the latest week's claims and the four-week average fall significantly below 400,000, a threshold point that economists consider a sign of an improving labor market.

On a state-by-state basis, New York, Michigan, California, and Connecticut recorded decreases of more than 1,000 initial claims for the week ending March 8 (most recent available data). New York was by far the leader, with fewer transportation and warehousing layoffs contributing to a 17,550-initial-claim drop. 

For the same period, only Pennsylvania registered an increase of more than 1,000 initial claims. Food service job cuts, as well as administrative and support layoffs, contributed to a 1,960-initial-claim increase.

About 3.35 million people received unemployment benefits as of March 1, the latest figures available. That's about 101,000 fewer than the previous week.

-- Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.