WASHINGTON – Employers boosted payrolls by a tepid 121,000 in June — an improvement from the previous month but new evidence that companies are reluctant to bulk up their work forces in the face of high energy prices and slowing economic growth. Wages rose sharply.
The Labor Department's fresh snapshot of job activity released Friday also showed that the nation's civilian unemployment rate held steady at 4.6 percent.
The pickup in payrolls last month followed a gain of 92,000 in May, which turned out to be slightly higher than the 75,000 positions first reported. April's payrolls, however, turned out to be lower, showing a gain of 112,000, rather than the 126,000 previously estimated.
The count of new jobs added in June was the most since March but fell short of economists' forecasts for an increase of around 175,000 new positions.
"When you only have 121,000 jobs being added that sounds pretty puny," said Ken Mayland, economist at ClearView Economics. "On the face of it, this is somewhat disappointing." The job picture, he said, is consistent with other barometers that suggest economic growth is slowing.
On Wall Street, stocks moved lower. The Dow Jones industrials were down 72 points and the Nasdaq was off 14 points in morning trading.
Still, the overall health of the labor market remains sturdy and that is helping some workers gain a bit of bargaining power in negotiating bigger paychecks, economists said.
Workers' average hourly earnings jumped to $16.70 in June, a sharp 0.5 percent increase from May. Economists were expecting a more modest rise of 0.3 percent. For the last 12 months, wages have gone up by 3.9 percent, the largest annual increase since June 2001. Still, economists said those wage gains are still trailing inflation in terms of prices paid by consumers for goods and services.
Wage improvement is good for workers but a rapid sustained acceleration can ignite inflation concerns.
To fend off inflation, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke and his colleagues bumped up interest rates last week to their highest point in more than five years.
The Fed left the door open to another increase — depending on how inflation and economic activity unfold — at its next meeting on Aug. 8. Some economists were hopeful that the Fed might take a break in its two-year long rate raising campaign and leave rates alone next time.
But the specter of wage inflation cast some doubt on that scenario, said Mayland. He thinks another increase is in store next month.
In June, weakness in construction and retailing — two sectors that shed jobs — tempered overall employment gains. Financial companies, education and health services, government and even manufacturers were among those boosting jobs.
It's a tricky time for some employers to figure out exactly where the economy is heading — and thus to what extent they need to add or shed workers.
The economy probably logged growth of around a 2.5 percent pace in the April-to-June quarter and could clock in close to 3 percent in current July-to-September period, analysts said. That would mark a considerable slowdown from the first quarter's 5.6 percent pace, the fastest in 2 1/2 years.
Even as the economy has slowed, inflation — led by surging energy prices — has moved higher.
Oil prices closed at a new record high of $75.19 a barrel on Wednesday. Gasoline prices have topped $3 a gallon in some cities.