WASHINGTON (AP) _ Companies added 96,000 jobs to their payrolls in September, fewer than economists forecast for the last employment report before Election Day, highlighting a modest pace of hiring that has become an issue in President Bush's bid for re-election.
The four hurricanes striking Florida and other coastal states the past two months ``appears to have held down employment growth, but not enough to change materially,'' the Labor Department said Friday in assessing September's national employment situation.
The nation's civilian unemployment rate remained at 5.4 percent.
Job growth was held down by losses in manufacturing, retail and information services. September's net increase of 96,000 payroll jobs was less than August's rise, which was revised down in Friday's report from 144,000 to 128,000.
Though 1.8 million jobs have been added to the payrolls of U.S. businesses since August 2003, there are about 800,000 fewer jobs _ overall _ than when Bush took office in January 2001.
That's a big political issue, especially in Rust Belt battleground states that have lost thousands of manufacturing jobs during Bush's presidency.
Bush's Democratic challenger, John Kerry, widened his lead on the question of who would create jobs. In a new AP-Ipsos Public Affairs poll, 54 percent of respondents favored Kerry on job creation, and 40 percent liked Bush. Less than half of likely voters, 47 percent, approved of Bush's performance on the economy.
Friday's report was sure to be closely scrutinized on both the Republican and Democratic sides, which offer starkly different views of the U.S. economy. Bush says the economy is growing steadily and jobs are being created. Kerry says jobs are being created, but there aren't enough new jobs to keep pace with population growth.