The number of U.S. workers filing new applications for jobless insurance tumbled last week by a surprisingly large amount to the lowest level in more than a year, according to government data on Wednesday that gave fresh evidence the battered labor market is improving.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits slid to a seasonally adjusted 466,000 in the week ended November 21, from a revised 501,000 in the prior week, the Labor Department said.

Seasonal adjustments turned a smaller-than-anticipated unadjusted rise in claims into a drop, a Labor Department economist said.

It was the fourth consecutive week of declines in seasonally adjusted claims, and marked a steady march lower from a recent peak of 674,000 in late March. Analysts say claims must fall below 400,000 to signal payrolls growth, which would be a critical indicator of recovery from the worst recession since the 1930s.

Analysts polled by Reuters were expecting a more modest slip to 500,000 claims from the previously reported 505,000.

The four-week moving average for new claims fell 16,500 to 496,500 in the latest week, the lowest since November last year and the 12th consecutive weekly decline. The moving average is considered a better gauge of underlying trends since it smoothes out week-to-week swings.

The number of workers still collecting benefits after an initial week of aid plunged a greater-than-expected 190,000 to 5.42 million in the week ended November 14, the lowest level since February. Analysts polled by Reuters were expecting so-called insured unemployment to slip to 5.59 million.

(Reporting by Mark Felsenthal, Editing by Andrea Ricci)