U.S. employers added just 88,000 jobs in March, the fewest in nine months and a sharp retreat after a period of strong hiring. The slowdown may signal that the economy is heading into a weak spring.
The Labor Department said Friday the unemployment rate dipped to 7.6 percent, the lowest in four years, from 7.7 percent. But the rate fell only because more people stopped looking for work. People who are out of work are no longer counted as unemployed once they stop looking for a job.
The percentage of working-age Americans with a job or looking for one fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest such figure in nearly 34 years. March's job gain was less than half the average of 196,000 jobs in the previous six months.
Average hourly pay rose just a penny, the smallest gain in five months. Average pay is just 1.8 percent higher than a year earlier, trailing the pace of inflation, which rose 2 percent in the past 12 months.
"This is not a good report through and through," Dan Greenhaus, chief economic strategist at brokerage firm BTIG, said in a note to clients.
The Labor Department uses a survey of mostly large businesses and government agencies to determine how many jobs are added or lost each month.
The government uses a separate survey of households to calculate the unemployment rate. This survey found the number of people either working or looking for work fell by nearly 500,000. It was the sharpest drop since December 2010. And the number of Americans who said they were employed dropped nearly 210,000.
Economists call the percentage of working-age adults in the labor force the participation rate. At 63.3 percent, it's the lowest since 1979. Normally during an economic recovery, an expanding economy lures job seekers back into the labor market. This time, many have stayed on the sidelines, and more have joined them.