The government reported Friday that employers added just 38,000 workers in May, a troubling sign that the economic recovery may have stalled, at least temporarily.
The sharp slowdown in hiring might also push back a decision by the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates.
Despite the anemic job gains, the official unemployment rate, which is based on a separate survey of households, fell to its lowest point in nearly a decade, 4.7 percent from 5 percent in April. But the decline was primarily a result of Americans dropping out of the labor force rather than finding jobs.
Aside from the sluggish job creation, the labor force participation rate declined for the second month in a row, to 62.6 percent, and the number of people working part time for economic reasons rose sharply.
“Boy, this is ugly,” said Diane Swonk, an independent economist in Chicago. “The losses were deeper and more broad-based than we expected, and with the downward revision to previous months, it puts the Fed back on pause. The only good news is that wages held.”
Average hourly earnings were up again, 0.2 percent for the month, for a gain of 2.5 percent for the year, continuing to rise at a faster pace than in recent years.
The weakness in May’s job totals were somewhat exaggerated because they reflected the Labor Department classification of more than 35,000 striking Verizon workers as unemployed. With those employees now back on the job, the missing strikers should be added back in next month’s report.
While Friday’s report is only a snapshot of the economy and the jobs engine could rev up again, it has sputtered this spring, with the Labor Department shrinking its estimate of March and April’s employment totals by 59,000 since the initial reports. The average monthly gain for the last three months was just 116,000 jobs.
While subject to further revision as well, May’s figures were the lowest monthly growth since September 2010.
Worries about the economy are a common refrain among supporters of Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, as well as among those who are backing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ faltering bid to lead the Democratic presidential ticket. Historically, the state of the American economy about six months in advance of the November election has played an outsize role in determining how people vote for president.
Even apart from the distortion created by the Verizon strike, the average monthly job gains so far in 2016 have fallen far shy of the nearly 240,000 average of the last two years, a pace that has helped buoy the economy and cut the jobless figure in half since the depths of the recession.
The Fed’s policymaking committee has its next three meetings scheduled for mid-June, late July and September.
Lael Brainard, a Fed governor and an ally of Fed chair Janet Yellen, described the May report as “sobering” in a speech Friday.
Brainard said the weak job growth was a reminder that the strength of the recovery should not be taken for granted and said she did not see clear evidence the economy had rebounded from a weak winter.
“Recent economic developments have been mixed, and important downside risks remain,” Brainard, who has pushed for the Fed to move slowly in raising interest rates, said at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. “In this environment, prudent risk management implies there is a benefit to waiting for additional data.”
Investors wrote off the chances of a June rate increase after the latest release. The probability of a June increase, as implied by asset prices, fell from 21 percent to 6 percent in early trading, according to CME Group. The probability of a rate rise by September fell from about two-thirds but remained at roughly 50-50.
With the summer stretching ahead, the sentiment on Wall Street could perhaps be best summed up by the Tempos’ 1959 hit “See You in September.”
Still, unless there are further signs of fresh economic weakness, most economists expect at least one rate increase before the end of the year. The unemployment rate, which the Fed regards as a key indicator, has finally dropped to where it was before the Great Recession began in late 2007.
Apart from the jobs figures, there are several encouraging economic signs, including a surge in home construction and hardy consumer spending. The pace of economic growth for the first three months of the year was a mere 0.8 percent. Most analysts expect that it will pick up to about 2.5 percent in the second quarter.
As for the number of people applying for unemployment insurance, the underlying trend has been encouraging, with jobless claims in recent weeks at their lowest levels since the 1970s.
“To be clear, there is no evidence the economy is slowing into recession,” said Steve Blitz, chief economist of M Science, a research firm.
Some Fed officials have also suggested they are reluctant to raise rates until after Britain holds a referendum later this month on its membership in the European Union. But that concern, too, may soon be in the rearview mirror.
Thomas Perez, the labor secretary, acknowledged that the jobs report was disappointing. But he said: “The closer you get to the summit of full employment, the more tradeoffs there will be between somewhat slower job growth and rising wages, and that’s what we’re beginning to see here in this recovery.”
He added: “I would be more concerned about the rest of the softness if it was consistent with other broad trends.”
Trump was quick to react on Twitter, writing: “Terrible jobs report just reported. Only 38,000 jobs added. Bombshell!”
A broader measure of unemployment that includes people too discouraged to search for work or who are making do with a part-time job because they cannot find a full-time job stayed steady at 9.7 percent. It has hovered just below 10 percent for more than six months.
While retiring baby boomers would be expected to bring down the proportion of the population in the labor market, Patrick O’Keefe, director of economic research at CohnReznick, an accounting, tax and advisory firm, said he was particularly disturbed by the significant decline among those in their prime working ages.
“In policymaking, the Fed continues to focus on a measure that is maladjusted, that does not reflect the reality of today’s economy,” said O’Keefe, a former deputy assistant secretary in the Labor Department.
Across generations, many people are still not attached to the workforce in the way they had envisioned.
“Many may be working in the gray economy, able to pick up work here and there, but not a sustainable job,” O’Keefe said.
Public sector employees — postal workers and bus drivers, teachers and police officers — have also not made up ground lost during the recession. Add in the normal growth that would be needed to keep pace with an expanding population and there is about a 1.8 million job shortfall in public sector employment, said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute, a labor-oriented research organization in Washington.
Dan Finnigan, chief executive of Jobvite, a recruiting service used by startups, said that “anxiety about the job market among seekers is going up,” with a majority surveyed expressing concern that advancing technology will eliminate their jobs.