WASHINGTON – The number of Americans who applied last week for new unemployment benefits rose sharply, although it remained at a level that suggests slow but steady improvement in the labor market.

Initial jobless claims rose 20,000 to a seasonally adjusted 362,000 in the week that ended Feb.16, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Economists surveyed by MarketWatch forecast claims to rise to 351,000 from a revised 342,000 in the prior week.

The increase may have been partly influenced by a federal holiday Monday — full claims data for four states including California and Virginia were not completed on time and had to be estimated.

Initial claims, a rough gauge of layoffs, have mostly stayed north of 360,000 over the past year. Although they’ve fallen below that level, claims have always bounced back up.

If claims can break below that threshold and stay there, it would suggest companies have accelerated hiring or are cutting even fewer workers. The economy has added just slightly more than 175,000 jobs a month in the past two years.

“Looking through the weekly volatility, a stable level of claims as of late is consistent with the familiar, moderate improvement in the labor market,” said Yelena Shulyatyeva, an economist at BNP Paribas.