The nation continued its grindingly slow jobs recovery last month as Congress remains deadlocked over an impending Jan. 1 deadline to avert hundreds of billions of dollars in automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts, which cast a pall of uncertainty over the economy.
Employers added an estimated 146,000 total new non-farm jobs in November, which was more than many economists had forecast, as private-sector hiring expanded by 147,000 in the month while government payrolls declined slightly.
The unemployment rate, which the government calculates from a separate survey of American households, declined to 7.7% from 7.9% in October, which is the lowest level in nearly four years. But the unemployment rate fell for reasons that are not entirely positive: an estimated 350,000 unemployed Americans gave up looking for work, which statistically removes them from the officially tally of unemployed.
Hurricane Sandy, which demolished communities and cities on the Northeast in late October, had a smaller impact on the economy than previously feared. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which released the November report on Friday, included a special analysis of the super-storm, concluding it "did not substantively impact the national employment and unemployment estimates for November," the agency said.
November was the 33rd consecutive month of positive employment gains in the private sector.
And November progressed in the same wheezing trend that it has shown ever since the nation turned the corner in early 2010 after the brutal 2008-'09 downturn.
The job growth suggests that employers aren't yet delaying hiring because of the "fiscal cliff." That's the combination of tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect next year unless the White House and Congress reach a budget deal.
"The better-than-expected report doesn't alter the view that the economy is grinding out just moderate job gains, as businesses continue to worry about the uncertain outlook for fiscal policy," said Sal Guatieri, a senior economist at BMO Financial Group.
The economy, many analysts concur, is primed to absorb more workers but has been thwarted throughout the recovery by one uncertainty after another such as: Will Greece default on its debt? Will Europe fall into an even deeper slump as a result? Will China's economy slow further?
Amid this uncertainty, employers have chosen to play it safe. They often wring productivity out of each current hire, or take on temp workers. That caution has preserved existing jobs and preventing any backsliding into a renewed recession.
November's mixed figures are not much different in the previous three years.
The U.S. retail sector showed signs of pre-holiday life, adding 53,000 jobs as the shopping season approached. In the last three months, retail employment has increased by 140,000. Temporary help companies added 18,000 and education and health care also gained 18,000.
Manufacturing, which is crucial to the industrial Midwest, languished in November. The factory sector lost jobs for three of the past four months.
The drop in the unemployment rate was seen as part of the mixed picture, because 350,000 stopped looking for work and weren't counted as unemployed, said Abdur Chowdhury, an economics professor at Marquette University.
"The recovery in the labor market continues at a painfully slow pace," Chowdhury said.
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