Employers added a disappointing 88,000 jobs in March, confirming fears of a slowdown in payroll growth that economists say could persist for several months.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.6% from 7.7%, the Labor Department said Friday.
A consensus forecast of economists had estimated that the economy added 190,000 jobs last month.
Some lowered their forecasts following this week's batch of weaker-than-expected reports. The government said Thursday that the number of Americans filing jobless claims for the first time rose by 28,000 last week to a four-month high of 385,000.
A separate survey by payroll processor ADP estimated that businesses added just 158,000 jobs in March, down sharply from the 200,000-plus average monthly gains since November. Measures of manufacturing and service-sector activity last month also slipped. And March layoffs rose sharply vs. a year ago, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas.
A temporary lull in the job market has been anticipated because of across-the-board federal spending cuts that took effect March 1 and this year's payroll tax increase that's likely to crimp consumer spending.
The economy and job growth have slowed in sprng each of the past three years for various reasons, including the European financial crisis, the Japanese earthquake and budget battles in Washington.