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RISE IN WAGES IS SMALLEST ON RECORD

American workers' wages, salaries and benefits rose 2.9 percent in the year ended March 31, the smallest increase on record and held back by the lowest advance ever in benefit costs.

The Labor Department said Tuesday the gain in its Employment Cost Index was down from 3.2 percent in the same quarter of 1994 and the tiniest since the department began the series in 1981.The index is considered one of the best gauges of wage inflation pressures. Employee compensation represents about two-thirds of the cost of a product.

Many analysts had expected the index to register a gain of about 3 percent in the 12 months ended in the first quarter.

The index showed wages and salaries - nearly three-fourths of total compensation - rose 3.0 per-cent in the year ended March 31, after a 2.9 percent advance a year earlier.