width=398WASHINGTON  - The number of U.S. workers filing new applications for unemployment insurance climbed more than expected last week but a measure of underlying trends moved steadily lower in a sign that labor markets are slowly improving.

The Labor Department said initial claims for state unemployment benefits rose 11,000 to 444,000 in the week ended January 9, higher than the 437,000 claims that analysts surveyed by Reuters had forecast. But a four-week moving average of claims that smoothes out weekly variations dropped for a 19th straight week, declining 9,000 to 440,750.

That was the lowest level for the four-week average of claims in nearly 1-1/2 years, since it was at 440,250 at the end of August 2008. The Federal Reserve said on Wednesday that its latest survey of national economic conditions indicated more people were finding jobs as 2009 ended and the jobless claims report added to the impression that hiring prospects were starting to brighten.

(Reporting by Glenn Somerville, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)