U.S. employers slowed the pace of hiring last month, the government reported yesterday, adding to signs that the economy cooled slightly in the spring.
The nation's payrolls grew by a modest 112,000 jobs in June, a smaller gain than the 235,000 added in May, the Labor Department reported. The economy has added jobs every month since August, but the size of the monthly increase peaked in March and has declined in each of the three months since.
The gains in April and May also were smaller, by a combined 35,000 jobs, than previously reported, according to revisions of the department's earlier figures.
The unemployment rate, meanwhile, held steady at 5.6 percent in June, for the third consecutive month, as the number of additional people seeking jobs roughly matched the additional number who found jobs.
Those and other details in the report show that employers scaled back their hiring as the economy lost some momentum in recent months, analysts said.
"When businesses get a sense that the underlying growth rate is weakening, they're going to cut back on hiring," said Peter E. Kretzmer, senior economist with Bank of America Corp., who largely blamed the spring increase in energy prices for eating into consumers' and businesses' spending power.
Stock prices fell slightly yesterday. But bond prices rose as financial analysts concluded that milder job growth will mean the Federal Reserve can stick to its plan of raising its benchmark short-term interest rate in small, gradual steps in the months ahead.
With the presidential election four months away, both major campaigns found ammunition in the mixed employment picture.
President Bush said the job gains were further evidence that his tax cuts have succeeded in strengthening the economy and the labor market.
"We're witnessing steady growth," Bush told a group of small-business owners at the White House, according to a transcript. "We don't need boom or bust type growth, we want just steady, consistent growth, so that our fellow citizens will be able to find a job, and so that the small business sector will feel confident about expanding."
The campaign of Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) said the job figures were not good enough.
"John Kerry thinks America can do better," campaign spokesman Phil Singer said in a written statement. "These numbers are a reminder that it's going to take more than just rhetoric to lift the economy."
The economy expanded by about a 4 percent annual rate in October through March, in part because of recent federal tax cuts and low interest rates. But as those effects waned and prices got higher, the pace of growth appears to have ebbed somewhat.
The Commerce Department, for example, reported yesterday that new orders to U.S. factories dropped 0.3 percent in May, for a second monthly decline. U.S. automakers' sales slid in June and several chain-store retailers reported disappointing sales. Manufacturing activity rose last month, but at a slower pace.
The employment report caused several analysts to trim their estimates of economic growth to around a 3.5 percent annual rate in the past three months.
Economists found signs of both improvement and weakness in the June labor market.
Employers added 1.5 million jobs since August. But the nation's total number of non-farm jobs remains 1.2 million below the peak reached in March 2001 when the recession began.
The industries that added jobs in June included health care and social services, professional and technical services, transportation, and warehousing.
But manufacturing lost 11,000 jobs in June after four months of growth. Construction and government employment was flat. Retail jobs increased only slightly.
Particularly troubling to some analysts were the June declines in both the length of the average workweek and average weekly earnings. The workweek, at 33.6 hours, seasonally adjusted, was the shortest since the department began recording the data in 1964. The workweek has touched that low before, including several months last year.
Some analysts speculated that these declines might reflect the closing of many businesses and government offices for former president Ronald Reagan's state funeral. But others said they were consistent with the overall softening of the economy.
The portion of the jobless who had been unemployed for more than six months was 21.6 percent in June, seasonally adjusted, down from 21.9 percent in May, but not much changed from the 21.8 percent of June last year.
There also remained 1.5 million people in June -- unchanged from a year ago -- who said they wanted a job but could not find one during the past 12 months. Those people were not counted among the unemployed because they did not actively look for work in the four weeks before the Labor Department's survey. In June, that group included 478,000 "discouraged" workers -- the same number as a year earlier -- who said they were not looking for work because they thought there were no jobs available for them.
After adding those who said they were working part-time because they couldn't find full-time jobs, the department's measure of the nation's "labor underutilization" was 9.6 percent in June, about the same level as the previous two months.
Several analysts said the employment report justified the Fed's plan to raise its benchmark federal funds rate very gradually in coming months.
"The economy is growing, but not in an inflationary way that will cause the Fed to be more aggressive," said Stuart G. Hoffman, senior vice president and chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group.
The unemployment rate for blacks or African Americans rose 0.2 percentage points to 10.1 percent. The rate among Hispanic or Latino workers fell 0.3 points to 6.7 percent. The white jobless rate was unchanged at 5 percent.