WASHINGTON — U.S. employers added only 88,000 jobs in March, the fewest in nine months and a sharp retreat after a period of strong hiring. The slowdown might signal that the economy is heading into a weak spring.
The Labor Department said Friday 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 working-age adult Americans with a job or looking for one fell to 63.3 percent in March, the lowest such figure in nearly 34 years.
Stocks plummeted after the report but narrowed their losses later in the day.
March’s job gain was less than half the average of 196,000 jobs in the previous six months. The government said hiring was even stronger in January and February than previously estimated. January job growth was revised up from 119,000 to 148,000. February was revised from 236,000 to 268,000.
Several industries cut back sharply on hiring. Retailers cut 24,000 jobs in March after averaging 32,000 in the previous three months. Manufacturers cut 3,000 jobs after adding 19,000 in February. Financial services shed 2,000.
Some economists said retailers might have held back on hiring because March was colder than normal. That likely meant that Americans bought fewer spring clothes and less garden equipment. Clothing stores shed 15,000 jobs, and building material and garden supply stores shed 10,000.
In March, average hourly pay rose 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. That’s the survey that produced the gain of 88,000 jobs for March.