WASHINGTON -- - U.S. hiring slowed sharply in September, and job gains for July and August were lower than previously thought, a sour note for a labor market that had been steadily improving.

The Labor Department says employers added just 142,000 jobs in September, depressed by job cuts by manufacturers and oil drillers. The unemployment rate remained 5.1 percent, but only because more Americans stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.

All told, the proportion of Americans who either have a job or are looking for one fell to a 38-year low.

Average hourly wages also slipped by a penny and have now risen by only 2.2 percent in the past year.

U.S. consumers are spending at a healthy pace, boosting job gains in sectors like retail and hotels and restaurants. But lackluster growth overseas has sharply reduced exports of factory goods.

The tepid pace of hiring complicates the picture for the Federal Reserve, which is deciding whether to raise short-term interest rates later this year for the first time in nine years.

Fed Chair Janet Yellen has said that the job market is nearly healed. But she has added that she wants to see further hiring and wage gains to increase her confidence that inflation will move closer to the Fed's target of 2 percent.

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Job gains have averaged 198,000 a month this year, a solid total, but below last year's average of 260,000.

Sales of new U.S. homes have jumped to a seven-year high, and auto sales soared nearly 16 percent in September to the highest level in a decade.

At the same time, the dollar has risen about 15 percent against overseas currencies in the past year, making U.S. goods more expensive overseas and imports less expensive. A sharp fall in exports has likely slowed growth in the July-September quarter to an annual rate of just 1.5 percent, according to economists from JPMorgan Chase. That's down from a 3.9 percent pace in the April-June quarter.