The U.S. economy gained 431,000 jobs last month, but most came from hiring 411,000 temporary census workers, the government said Friday. Employment in the private sector, considered a key measure of the country's employment health, grew by just 41,000 jobs.

The latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics fell far short of the 536,000 jobs expected by economists surveyed by Bloomberg News. The news contributed to a 323-point drop on Wall Street.

In some ways the May report was the opposite of April's, when the economy added 290,000 jobs, 218,000 in the private sector.

Bart van Ark, chief economist of The Conference Board, a Manhattan business-research group, said that while this month's data still show a trend of job growth, the lower-than-expected numbers bear watching.

"We need to see more months to see if we have passed the peak" on job growth, he said, pointing out that it would be "relatively early in the recovery from the recession."

The census hiring gave the federal-government sector positive job numbers, while almost every state and local-government sector declined.

Long Island currently has 5,000 temporary census workers, many of whom are enumerators who go door to door, said Veronica Lavarro, a spokeswoman in the New York regional Census center in Manhattan. Enumerators earn an average $18 an hour on Long Island plus 50 cents a mile for travel.

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The enumerators began working May 1 and are scheduled to finish July 10. But some work will continue after that.

One worker is Deer Park resident William Martinetti, 65, a retired bus-accident investigator for the New York City Transit system. "I wanted to make some extra money because I am retired," he said. "And they pay really well."

Elizabeth Schumacher, 47, of Speonk, is a temporary field-operations supervisor who began working in March. Schumacher, who is also a real estate agent, said the money helps because of the slowdown in the housing market. "It comes in handy, being a Realtor," said the mother of a 7-year-old. "It helps pay the baby-sitting bill . . . "

The economy actually got a double dose of temporary jobs because the temporary-staffing category was among the private sector's biggest job generators in May, adding 31,000 jobs. Manufacturing produced 29,000 new jobs. Construction shrank the most, losing 35,000.

The national unemployment rate eased to 9.7 percent in May from 9.9 percent in April, but that drop could reflect the increase in discouraged workers, or those who aren't actively looking and thus aren't counted as unemployed. They increased by 291,000 in May compared with May a year ago.

The Island's latest job statistics, released last month, showed 6,700 more private-sector jobs in April than the same month last year, the first gain since May 2008, according to state data. Unemployment dropped to 6.6 percent in April from 7.2 percent the previous month.