WASHINGTON – Initial jobless claims unexpectedly plunged last week to their lowest level since the early days of the Great Recession as the labor market continued to show signs of strengthening.

The number of people filing for first-time unemployment benefits fell by 19,000 in the week ending Saturday to 326,000, the Labor Department said Thursday.

The last time the number was lower was in January 2008. Weekly claims hit 670,000 a little more than a year later at their worst point in the 2007-2009 recession.

Economists had projected claims to hold steady last week at about 345,000.

Weekly jobless claims are particularly volatile in the early summer as government economists try to make seasonal adjustments to deal with annual shutdowns of auto factories for retooling.

At the start of July, the figure jumped to 358,000 and bounced up and down in the following weeks.

But the four-week average dropped by 4,500 last week to 341,250, near a post-recession low. The number is solidly below the 350,000 level that economists say indicates moderate job growth.

Economists surveyed by Bloomberg News expect the U.S. Labor Department to report Friday that the economy overall added 185,000 jobs last month, down from 195,000 in June. The economists projected the unemployment rate dropping 0.1 percentage point to 7.5 percent.