WASHINGTON – The number of people filing for state unemployment benefits for the first time fell to its second-lowest level this year, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Against a backdrop of what’s been stubbornly high joblessness, initial claims dropped 3,000 to a seasonally adjusted 420,000 last week, marking the third decline in the past four weeks.

First-time claims have been on a clear improving trend over the past two months, raising hope that companies will soon hire more workers. Claims are down about 55,000 from the beginning of October, but they remain above levels typical of a healthy economy.

The number of people claiming benefits of any kind remained above 9 million, not seasonally adjusted in the week ended Nov. 27, the latest data available.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch had been looking for first-time claims to inch higher. The level of initial claims in the week ended Dec. 4 was revised up by 2,000 to 423,000.

Economists believe that the labor market isn’t as weak as the November unemployment report implied. The unemployment rate unexpectedly jumped to 9.8 percent in November, back within hailing distance of the peak rate of 10.1 percent hit in October 2009.

Oppenheimer Funds chief economist Jerry Webman said the weekly decline is “consistent with this gradual sustainable recovery that the economy is currently experiencing.”

Webman said claims are still relatively high, however.

“We would like to see them stabilizing below the 400,000 level,” he said.

The four-week average of new claims also fell, down 5,250 to 422,750. This is the lowest level since the week ending Aug. 2, 2008.