WASHINGTON - The unemployment rate dropped unexpectedly in January to 9.7 percent from 10 percent while employers shed 20,000 jobs, the government said Friday.
The rate dropped because a survey of households found the number of employed Americans rose by 541,000, the Labor Department said.
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The job losses are calculated from a separate survey of employers.
The report also included an annual revision to the estimates of total payrolls, which showed there were 930,000 fewer jobs last March than previously estimated.
The department also revised down its estimates for April through October of last year, adding another 433,000 job losses.
The November figure was revised higher, however, to show a gain of 64,000 jobs.
All told, the Great Recession has eliminated 8.4 million jobs, the department said. That's the most of any recession since World War II as a proportion of total payrolls.
Aside from November's gain, January's job losses were the smallest since the recession began. Employers cut 779,000 jobs in January 2009.
The report included more good news from the manufacturing sector, which is a key factor in the recovery. Manufacturers gained 11,000 jobs, its largest increase since April 2006.
Retailers added 42,100 jobs, the most since November 2007, before the recession began. Temporary help services gained 52,000 jobs, the fourth month of gains in that category. That could signal future hiring, as employers usually hire temp workers before permanent ones.
The number of part-time workers who want full-time work, but can't find it fell by almost 1 million. That lowered the "underemployment" rate, which also includes discouraged workers, to 16.5 percent from 17.3 percent.
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