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Economist: Job stagnation not worrisome yet

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The nation's unemployment rate went virtually unchanged as U.S. employers added a meager 88,000 jobs in March, the Department of Labor reported today, for a total that's nearly half the average monthly job growth from the past 12 months.

The agency's Bureau of Labor Statistics said unemployment ticked down to 7.6 percent, thanks mostly to another decrease in the number of people looking for jobs. The labor force participation rate, which includes employed workers and job seekers, inched down 0.2 percentage points from February, to 63.3 percent, as some 290,000 people exited the labor pool.

The March job figures are disappointing after the gains of recent months, said Subarna Samanta, an economics professor at the College of New Jersey, in Ewing. Employers added 148,000 and 268,000 jobs in January and February, following revisions today by Labor, and the U.S. had been adding 169,000 jobs monthly prior to the latest findings.

But Samanta also said "it's still a little premature" to be truly alarmed.

"This is only one month's data, so we're not very concerned about it right now," he said. "But if it continues next month, then we will be concerned."

Job growth in March was led by professional and business services and the health care sector, which accounted for 51,000 and 23,000 new positions, respectively, Labor said. But retail trade employment fell by 24,000 jobs, a reversal from the past six months.

One cause for the lukewarm job growth may be the recent 2 percent increase in Social Security payroll taxes, which took effect earlier this year and affects both workers and employers, Samanta said. That also could translate to lower consumer spending and a drain on retail sector employment.

"Basically I think people are not buying goods, so the total sales are going down," Samanta said, though he added that it's "too early to make any conclusive comments here."

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