US employers hired the fewest workers in almost three years in December, but the setback was likely to be temporary amid signs that cold weather conditions might have had an impact.
Nonfarm payrolls rose only 74,000 last month, the smallest increase since January 2011, and the unemployment rate fell 0.3 percentage point to 6.7 percent, the Labor Department said on Friday. The unemployment rate was the lowest since October 2008 and mostly reflected people leaving the labor force.
The step back in hiring is at odds with other employment indicators that have painted an upbeat picture of the jobs market. The data showed that 38,000 more jobs were added in November than previously reported.
"It looks like it's a weather issue - a big drop in construction and a 1,000 drop in transportation. People will focus on the unemployment rate drop and the upward revision to the prior month," said John Canally, an economist for LPL Financial in Boston
Construction employment fell for the first time since May and leisure and hospitality payrolls rose marginally, suggesting that extremely cold weather in some parts of the country had held back hiring. In addition, transportation payrolls recorded their first decline in five month.
There was also a decline in the average workweek.
The smaller survey of households showed 273,000 people stayed at home because of the bad weather, the most since 1977.
Economists polled by Reuters had expected job gains of 196,000 jobs last month. But many pushed up their forecasts in the wake of upbeat labor market data during the week.
U.S. stock index futures trimmed gains on the report, while prices for U.S. Treasury debt rose.
A string of data - from consumer spending and trade to industrial production - has suggested the economy ended 2013 on strong footing and is positioned to gain even more strength this year.
MORE PEOPLE LEAVE THE LABOR FORCE
The change in the economy's fortunes, which gave the Federal Reserve confidence last month to start dialing back its massive monetary stimulus, reflects waning fiscal uncertainty after lawmakers in Washington agreed on a two-year budget.
The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who