WASHINGTON - Employment costs in the United States rose slightly more than expected in the first quarter, driven by benefits that recorded the biggest jump in almost three years, Labor Department data showed on Friday.

The Employment Cost Index rose 0.6 percent in the three months ending in March, faster than the 0.5 percent that analysts polled by Reuters had expected and also above the previous quarter's 0.4 percent rise.

Wages and salaries, which make up about 70 percent of compensation costs, rose 0.4 percent, while benefits increased 1.1 percent. That was the biggest gain since the second quarter of 2007, a Labor Department official said.

For the 12-month period ending in March 2010, compensation costs rose 1.7 percent. That was below the prior 12-month reading of 2.1 percent, suggesting overall labor cost pressures remained contained. (Reporting by Emily Kaiser; editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)