The total number of workers receiving unemployment benefits fell to the lowest level in 44 years to end 2017, the Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Altogether, 1.87 million people received unemployment insurance benefits in the last week of the year, the lowest such seasonally-adjusted mark since December of 1973. Benefits are available for up to 26 weeks in most states.

The low number of people utilizing unemployment insurance is a good sign for the economy. Fewer people seeking unemployment benefits suggests that fewer people are getting laid off. Total claims have scraped the lowest levels in decades several times in recent months.

As for new claims for unemployment benefits, they rose 11,000 to 261,000 in the first week of 2018, according to the same report.

Forecasters had expected jobless claims to drop only slightly from the previous week's level of 250,000, the highest such mark since November. Instead, they rose to the highest level since September, when the numbers were inflated by hurricane damage to southern states. The Department of Labor said that hurricane-related damage is still affecting the collection of insurance claims in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Nevertheless, new claims are still below the threshold that would suggest that unemployment could start rising, which economists peg at around 300,000.

In fact, even with unemployment at the lowest rate since the turn of the century, 4.1 percent, job creation has remained strong in recent months, suggesting that joblessness could decline even further in the months ahead. Over the past three months, monthly job gains have averaged 204,000.

New jobless claims fell throughout the end of President Obama's tenure, after spiking during the financial crisis, eventually reaching levels not seen in the mid-2000s. They have continued to grind lower during President Trump's first year in office.

Federal Reserve officials watch the claims numbers for signs about the health of the labor market that might not be available in the monthly jobs reports. The ultra-low claims have been among the most encouraging indicators about the economy, reassuring Fed officials that they are on the right track by slowing raising interest rates and withdrawing the stimulus programs they put in place during the recession.