The number of U.S. workers filing new applications for unemployment insurance fell slightly less than expected last week, a government report showed on Thursday, hinting at a slow labor market recovery.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slipped 6,000 to a seasonally adjusted 462,000 in the week ended March 6, down from a revised 468,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said.

Analysts polled by Reuters had expected claims to drop to 460,000 from a previously reported 469,000 the prior week.

A Labor Department official said there were no special factors affecting the report. The four-week moving average of new claims, which irons out week-to-week volatility, rose 5,000 to 475,500, the highest since late November.

While both claims and the four-week average remain at uncomfortably high levels, the labor market is showing signs of stabilizing. Government data this week showed jobs opened up in January at the fastest pace in nearly a year and other employment indicators continue to point to an improving trend.

Restoring growth to the labor market, worst hit by the most painful economic downturn since the 1930s, is crucial to sustaining the economy's recovery when the boost from government stimulus and a turn in the inventory cycle wanes.

The economy has lost 8.4 million jobs since the start of the downturn in December 2007 and there is rising optimism that payroll jobs growth could start as early as March.

The number of people still receiving benefits after an initial week of aid rose 37,000 to 4.56 million in the week ended February 27, the Labor Department said. Analysts had expected so-called continuing claims to hold steady at 4.49 million.

The insured unemployment rate, which measures the percentage of the insured labor force that is jobless, was unchanged at 3.5 percent in the week ended February 27. The number of people on extended unemployment benefits fell in the week ended February 20.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Neil Stempleman)