WASHINGTON — Companies added 96,000 jobs to their payrolls in September, fewer than economists forecast for the last employment report before Election Day. The figures underscored the modest hiring pace that has become an issue in President Bush's re-election bid.
The four hurricanes striking Florida and other coastal states the past two months appear "to have held down employment growth, but not enough to change materially" the overall jobs picture in September, the Labor Department said Friday.
The nation's civilian unemployment rate remained at 5.4 percent.
Job growth was weighed down by losses in manufacturing, retail and information services. September's net increase of 96,000 payroll jobs was less than August's rise, which was revised down in Friday's report from 144,000 to 128,000.
"I wouldn't want to be in President Bush's shoes. He had better prepare himself for an onslaught," said private economist Ken Mayland of ClearView Economics, noting Friday night's second presidential debate. "The reality is that a 96,000 increase in a work force of a 131 million base is an anemic rise, and is in no way a satisfactory increase."
The economy should be creating 250,000 jobs or more per month by now, he said. Economists predicted that about 150,000 new jobs would be added in September.
On Wall Street, the lackluster report pushed stocks lower. The Dow Jones industrial average was down 19 points in late morning trading, and the Nasdaq dropped almost 13 points.
With the new report, Bush heads into next month's election with a jobs deficit. Though 1.8 million jobs have been added to business payrolls in the past year, there are 821,000 fewer nonfarm jobs in the country than when Bush took office in January 2001.
Democratic challenger John Kerry called the new data "another disappointing jobs report."
"Our economy has failed to create even enough jobs to cover new workers coming into the job market, not to speak of the millions who are unemployed, working in part-time or temporary jobs or who have given up and dropped out," Kerry said in a statement.
But Labor Secretary Elaine Chao, in a statement, said the economy "has been through a great deal lately — devastating hurricanes and rising oil prices." The new figures show "the strength and resilience of our economy and that the labor market continues to improve," she said.
Job losses are a big political issue, especially in Rust Belt battleground states that have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs during Bush's presidency, and will play a crucial role in the election.
Kerry has widened his lead on the question of who would create jobs. In a new AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll, 54 percent of respondents favored Kerry on job creation, and 40 percent liked Bush. Less than half of likely voters, 47 percent, approved of Bush's performance on the economy.
Friday's report was closely scrutinized by Republicans and Democrats, which offer starkly different views of the U.S. economy. Bush says the economy is growing steadily and notes that jobs are being created. Kerry says sluggish job creation can't keep pace with population growth.
The impact of the hurricanes on national employment figures was probably slight.
The hurricanes "did not change the basic employment or unemployment story," Mayland said. "We're seeing disappointing increases."
The storms affected companies and workers unable to operate in the aftermath, but other employers added jobs to respond to the devastation, the department said.
"Overall, we do not believe that the net result of these factors materially changes the national employment situation for September, but we cannot precisely quantify the weather effects," said Kathleen Utgoff, commissioner of the department's Bureau of Labor Statistics.
In an annual practice, the bureau's analysts revised their payroll estimates based on more information becoming available. The tabulations indicate that payroll employment will be revised upward about 236,000 for March. That revision will be published in February when January's employment report is released.
The jobs report showed much of the growth last month occurred in government hiring, which resulted in 37,000 net new jobs. Hiring in the service sector continued to rise in such industries as professional and business services, which added 34,000 jobs overall; financial services, which added 26,000 jobs; and the leisure and hospitality category, which expanded hiring by 13,000.
The troubled manufacturing sector shed 18,000 jobs, the first decline in two months. However, the nation's factories have boosted hiring by 88,000 jobs in the previous seven months. Construction employment grew by 4,000. The sector has showed little growth since May.