The nation’s unemployment rate slipped to 5.9 percent in November, the lowest level in eight months, but employers added new jobs at a slower pace than expected.

The Labor Department reported Friday that the rate fell from 6 percent in October. The last time it was lower was in March, at 5.8 percent.

U.S. companies added 57,000 new jobs in November, boosting payrolls by 328,000 during the past four months following a half-year hiring drought. But analysts had predicted that about 150,000 new jobs would be added in November.

The jobs market “is not improving as fast as we thought it was,” said David Wyss, chief economist at Standard and Poor’s DRI. “It’s true we’ve had four consecutive months of payroll growth, which is a start. But it’s only a bare start.”

Economists are looking for monthly payroll gains of 200,000 to 300,000 to significantly lower the unemployment rate and sustain a labor market recovery.

The dollar sold off sharply early Friday in New York following the weaker-than-expected report.

Holding down overall payrolls last month were the grocery store strikes in California, Missouri and elsewhere. The strikes accounted for 23,000 jobs being lost last month, the government said. The hiring of replacement workers helped offset those losses a bit.

The nation’s factories continue to struggle. Job losses continued for 39th consecutive month in November, with payrolls falling by 17,000. But the pace has slowed significantly.

But hope for some stabilization could be dashed, with President Bush’s move Thursday to scrap tariffs on imported steel that he had imposed last year to help the battered industry.

The decision sparked anger from steel companies, workers and their political supporters, who accused Bush of breaking a campaign promise and turning his back on an industry that was still in need of protection from unfair foreign competition. Critics said Rust Belt and Midwestern states would be hard hit by Bush’s decision. Bush said he had given the industry the time it needed to regroup.

Democrats blame the loss of some 2 million jobs since January 2001 on Bush’s handling of the economy. But the Bush administration credits tax cuts with helping energize the recovery.

Major Market Indices

Four straight months of job growth could benefit Bush’s re-election effort and hurt Democrats’ plans to use the lack of new jobs as a political issue to win back the White House.

The jobs market has been a weak link in the recovery, with companies hesitant to hire new, full-time workers out of concern that the improvements wouldn’t last. Instead, employers worked their employees longer and harder, sending productivity to a two-decade high last quarter.

In Friday’s jobs report, the services sector continued to drive employment gains, with health care and social services jumping by 25,000 in November. Hotels and lodging facilities created 13,000 new positions. Hiring also occurred in education, government and professional and business services.

In the goods-producing category, construction employment was up last month by 10,000.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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