First-time claims for unemployment benefits fell to 281,000 for the week ending July 11, the Department of Labor reported Thursday.

Thursday's number represented a drop of 15,000 from the week before, and slightly better than the seasonally-adjusted 282,000 expected by investors.

The decline ends a three-week streak of rising claims. Jobless claims, however, haven't broken the 300,000 mark since February.

The four-week moving average of claims rose to 282,500.

Claims for unemployment benefits signal low numbers of layoffs, and falling claims are taken as a positive sign for the economy.

The ongoing run of sub-300,000 jobless claims numbers have been cited by government and private forecasters as a hopeful sign for the U.S. economy this year.

"Looking forward, prospects are favorable for further improvement in the U.S. labor market," Federal Reserve chairwoman Janet Yellen said in congressional testimony Wednesday.

The unemployment rate fell to 5.3 percent in June. Job gains have averaged 221,000 for the past three months, below the 2014 pace but strong enough to convince most economists that the recovery is intact.

In one negative development, the total number of people receiving unemployment benefits of all durations rose for a second straight week, by 33,750 to 2.18 million. Federal benefits are available through 26 weeks of unemployment. There were 2.45 million workers receiving benefits at the same time last year.