First-time claims for US unemployment benefits rose for the second consecutive week last week, hitting a nine-month high during the year-end holiday season, government data released Thursday showed.

Initial jobless claims, a sign of the pace of layoffs, rose to 379,000 in the week ending December 14 from a revised 369,000 the prior week, the Labor Department said.

The last time claims were near that level was in late March.

The increase surprised analysts, who had expected claims to fall to 333,000 last week. A year ago, claims totaled 366,000.

The four-week moving average rose sharply to 343,500, an increase of 13,250 from the previous week.

The weekly jump in claims "shouldn't be interpreted as a sign the labor market is deteriorating. Claims are notoriously volatile this time of year and are less useful gauging the underlying health of the job market," said Ryan Sweet of Moody's Analytics.

Generally the US labor market has been improving, a key factor in the Federal Reserve's decision to begin easing stimulus in January.

The jobless rate fell to a five-year low of 7.0 percent in November and the economy added 203,000 jobs, picking up from the two previous months.

['Young Woman Asking For A Job, Man Looking Indifferent' via Shutterstock]