New claims for US unemployment benefits held steady last week, the government said Thursday in a report showing the ailing labor market is slowly improving. Initial jobless claims totaled 351,000 in the week ending February 18, unchanged from the prior week\'s figure, which was revised from the original estimate of 348,000, the Labor Department said. In a fresh sign of improvement, the four-week moving average of initial jobless claims, which helps smooth out volatility in the weekly numbers, fell by 7,000 to 359,000. Claims have been trending downward since the middle of last year and are now at levels last seen in March 2008. In January, the unemployment rate fell for the fifth straight month, to 8.3 percent, the lowest level since February 2009, as businesses cranked up hiring.