WASHINGTON (AP) _ The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits rose by 18,000 last week, the government reported Thursday, signaling the weak economy is still leading companies to hold down costs by laying off workers.

The Labor Department said a total of 381,000 newly laid off workers filed for jobless benefits last week compared to a revised figure of 363,000 the previous week.

Private economists had been predicting a rise in jobless claims for the week, given that claims fell by an unexpectedly large 30,000 in the previous week.

Because of that sharp decline, the four-week moving average for jobless claims, which helps to smooth out weekly variations, declined last week to 386,500, down from 388,500 the week before and the lowest level since late November.