By  on November 7, 2005

WASHINGTON — Still absorbing the shock of a devastating hurricane season, U.S. employers boosted payrolls by 56,000 jobs last month, about half the number anticipated by economists.

The unemployment rate inched down to 5 percent from 5.1 percent in September, the Labor Department said.

Despite reports from retailers last week showing high energy prices did not derail the consumer and that October sales were solid, stores cut their payrolls during the month. Department stores slashed 18,100 jobs in October, reducing employment to 1.6 million, while apparel and accessories stores eliminated 3,300 positions to employ 1.4 million.

The impact of Hurricane Katrina continued to skew the overall figures, but the declines in retail employment might point to some economic softening, JPMorgan Chase economist James Glassman said.

"Consumer spending is going to be very flat in the fourth quarter overall," he said. "It's a little hard to figure what's going on. You're looking at the footprint of Hurricane Katrina."

Domestic apparel and textile producers continued to shed jobs in October, though the pace has lessened compared with a few years ago, Charles McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services, said in a report.

Apparel producers cut 3,400 jobs for total employment of 250,500, while textile mills reduced payrolls by 1,100 to 218,500. Textile product mills added 300 positions to employ 179,600.

"The moderation of job and production losses this year may be the result of administration actions to slow the glut of imports from China and uncertainties over future trade and other actions," said McMillion.

Since December 1994, the textile and apparel industry has lost 58.3 percent of its workforce, or 907,900 jobs, he noted.

"Those jobs are moving overseas and nothing's stopping it," said Standard & Poor's chief economist David Wyss. "The cost of employment overseas is just so much lower and those are not generally high-skill jobs. You can hire someone in China to do the same work for a quarter of the price."

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