WASHINGTON — 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 today that 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 Americans working or looking for jobs fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest such figure in nearly 34 years.
Stocks plummeted after the report. The Dow Jones industrial average dropped 157 points in morning trading. Broader indexes also declined.
March's job gains were less than half the average of the previous six months, when the economy added an average of 196,000 jobs a month. The government said hiring was even stronger in January and February than previously estimated. January's job growth was revised up from 119,000 to 148,000. February's was revised from 236,000 to 268,000.
Several industries cut back sharply on hiring in March. Retailers cut 24,000 jobs after averaging 32,000 in the previous three months. Manufacturers cut 3,000 jobs after adding 19,000 the previous month. Financial services shed 2,000.
Some economists said retailers might have held back on hiring because March was colder than normal. That likely meant Americans bought fewer spring clothes and bought less garden equipment. Clothing stores shed 15,000 jobs and building material and garden supply stores shed 10,000.
The Labor Department uses a survey of mostly large businesses and government agencies to determine how many jobs are added or lost each month. That's the survey that produced the gain of 88,000 jobs for March. It uses a separate survey of households to calculate the unemployment rate.