New applications for unemployment benefits dropped 2,000 to 236,000 to start December, the Department of Labor reported Thursday, the lowest level since October, as the jobs market continued to strengthen.

Economists had expected claims to drift up just slightly to 240,000. Instead, they fell even further, even though Puerto Rico continues to suffer joblessness because of Hurricane Maria.

Low jobless claims are a good sign for the economy. They suggest that layoffs are relatively rare, and accordingly that job growth is strong.

The Federal Reserve and private investors pay close attention to the claims numbers because they come out frequently. Thursday's report sets expectations for Friday's payroll jobs report for November.

With unemployment already nearly as low as it has been in a generation, at 4.1 percent in November, jobless claims are signaling that it could go lower still in the months ahead.