WASHINGTON — Retail employment levels remained lean in September as the U.S. economy continued to shed jobs, putting a crimp into hopes for the holiday season.

Department stores cut 2,200 jobs in September to employ 1.53 million, after adding jobs in August for the first time since May, the Labor Department said Friday. Specialty stores added 1,600 jobs to employ 1.41 million, but didn’t erase a significant drop in August, when 9,500 specialty store jobs were eliminated.

“The specialty store number is not anything to bank a recovery on,” said Richard Yamarone, director of economic research for Argus Research Corp. “Things are still pretty bleak.”

Economists expect retailers to keep their staffs lean until the economy shows robust signs of improvement. Anecdotal reports from retailers indicate that most companies won’t increase their staffing levels for the holidays, Yamarone said.

“Lean staffing may be justified given the bleak situation in the overall employment picture,” Yamarone said.

The overall economy shed 263,000 jobs in September, compared with 216,000 jobs lost in August. The unemployment rate advanced to 9.8 percent from 9.7 percent the previous month. On Friday, Vice President Joe Biden said the administration expected the economic recovery would take a long time and that “recovery would come in fits and starts and that job creation would be the last element to come into place.”

“There was nothing to support the view that the economy will be adding jobs before the end of the year and nothing to support the view that the consumer can sustain the spending increases that we saw in August,” said Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight. “Employment and hours worked were down, and hourly earnings only inched higher, implying that wage and salary incomes fell.”

The continued job losses in the overall economy could spell trouble for retailers heading into the important holiday season.

“We’re still eliminating jobs at a scalding pace,” Yamarone said. “This is really going to hurt consumer spending as we head into the holiday season.”

The official number of jobs lost since the recession began is 7.2 million, Gault noted.

“There have been some seasonal ups and downs in the retail industry, but retail remains very soft,” said Charles McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services.

In the manufacturing sector, textile mills, which make apparel fabric, cut 700 jobs to employ 121,700. Textile product mills, which make home furnishing fabric, eliminated 400 jobs to employ 126,000. Apparel manufacturers cut 1,200 jobs to employ 163,900.

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