(Reuters) - Employment rose by a meager 36,000 jobs in January, far less than expected, as severe snow storms slammed large parts of the nation, but the unemployment rate fell to its lowest level since April 2009.
The increase in non-farm payrolls reported by the Labor Department on Friday was a quarter of the 145,000 increase that economists had expected.
The government noted that severe weather could have affected construction payrolls, which dropped 32,000 last month. There were also large declines in the employment of couriers and messengers.
A department official also said 886,000 people in the separate household survey said they did not work in January because of severe weather.
"Weather did have an impact, construction was weak, below trend, and transportation and warehousing was also pretty soft and that could be affected by weather," said Sean Incremona, an economist at 4Cast in New York.
U.S. stock index futures fell on the data, while U.S. bond prices extended losses The dollar fell, then recovered against major currencies.
The modest jobs gains are at odds with other data for January, which had suggested employment growth was picking up and had raised hopes that the manufacturing-driven recovery was now spreading to other sectors of the economy.
There was some good news in the employment report as the jobless rate fell to nine per cent from 9.4 per cent in December. The household survey from which the unemployment rate is derived showed the number of unemployed dropped by about 600,000 last month.
The unemployment rate had previously declined largely as a result of people giving up the search for work, but in January the labor force was unchanged, even after adjustments for updated population controls.
Still, the decline is unlikely to discourage the Federal Reserve from completing its $600 billion government bond-buying program to support the economy, as discouraged jobseekers are expected to return to the labor market.
The labor market has lagged the broader economy, which grew at a 3.2 per cent annual rate in the fourth quarter. Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke on Thursday acknowledged the pick-up in the recovery, but said "it will be several years before the unemployment rate has returned to a more normal level."
The government revised November and December payrolls to show 40,000 more jobs created that previously estimated.
"All economic data is two steps forward, one step back. We're certainly going in the right direction; however, nowhere near as fast as everyone wants us to," said Robert Lutts, president and chief investment officer at Cabot Money Management in Salem, Massachusetts.
The Labor Department also finalized its annual benchmark revisions to its payroll series, which showed the level of employment for March 2010 overstated by 378,000.