U.S. job growth slowed last month as manufacturers, airlines and retailers shed workers, the government reported yesterday in its last official snapshot of the labor market before the presidential election.
Employers added 96,000 non-farm jobs last month, down from 128,000 in August, as losses in some industries were more than offset by hires in others, such as real estate, construction and temporary help services.
September was the fourth-straight month of gains below the roughly 150,000 a month that many economists estimate are necessary to keep pace with population growth. The unemployment rate held steady at 5.4 percent as hundreds of thousands of people stopped looking for work and therefore were not counted among the jobless, the Labor Department said.
The job report provided ammunition for both presidential campaigns just hours before the second of three candidate debates.
"Today's employment report shows the steady creation of jobs fueled by the pro-growth policies and strong economic leadership of President Bush," said Treasury Secretary John W. Snow in a statement, noting that payrolls grew by nearly 2 million jobs over the past 13 months.
Democrats seized on the fact that the total number of jobs has fallen by more than half a million since January 2001, when Bush took office.
"President Bush will be the first president in 72 years to face the electorate with an economy that has lost jobs under his watch," Democratic candidate John F. Kerry said in a written statement yesterday morning.
The September increase in jobs was probably depressed somewhat by the four hurricanes that struck the Southeast in the last two months, but not enough to "materially" change the overall picture, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said in a written statement.
Stocks fell as the slowing pace of job creation and rising price of oil fanned investor fears that the economy will turn more sluggish. U.S. benchmark crude oil for November delivery closed at a record $53.31 a barrel yesterday on the New York Mercantile Exchange. Heating oil closed at $1.454 a gallon.
Analysts disagreed over whether the report reflected a weakening economy. But they agreed that employers remain reluctant to hire as employee benefit costs soar, energy costs climb, consumer confidence slips and the economic outlook remains clouded by fears of terrorism.