Initial claims for unemployment benefits in the United States came in well above expectations, rising to 444k in the week ending Aug. 30, the Department of Labor reported on Thursday. Continuing claims rose to 3.435 million for the week ending Aug. 23.

Forecasts were for initial claims to fall to 420k this week, following last week's upwardly revised reading of 429k.

This week's figure is now below the four-week moving average for initial claims, which is at 438k, down from 440k last week.

Continuing claims were expected to come in at 3.420 million for the week ending Aug. 23, following the previous week's upwardly revised figure of 3.429 million.

This is the 17th consecutive week that continuing claims have been above the 3 million mark. The four-week moving average is now 3.400 million, up from the moving average of 3.365 million in the previous week.

Claims have recently been higher than normal following new rules introduced by the Department of Labor that made filing for unemployment benefits easier.

Prior to the release, economists from JPMorgan said that while continuing claims have been biased upward by the extended benefits program "to a degree", they added that continuing claims had already been moving rapidly upward prior to the changes. "Thus we think much of their recent increase in based on fundamentals, not just on the extended benefits distortion," they said.

By Stephen Huebl and edited by Nancy Girgis