By  on March 12, 2007

WASHINGTON — Department and specialty stores trimmed head counts by 8,500 last month, and U.S. apparel and textile producers cut payrolls by 5,100.

Apparel and accessories stores cut a seasonally adjusted 4,500 positions in February, to employ a total of 1.4 million; department stores eliminated 4,000 jobs to 1.6 million.

Overall, the economy added 97,000 jobs in February and job growth for January was revised upward to 146,000. The unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent from 4.6 percent, according to the Labor Department's monthly reading on jobs released Friday.

"[The report] suggests the economy is growing and doesn't need help from the Fed to maintain expansion," said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Moody's Economy.com.

The Federal Reserve, which has held its benchmark federal funds rate at 5.25 percent since June, might lower interest rates to spur the economy if growth appears to be in a slump.

"We're still seeing very healthy job growth outside of the few sectors of the economy that we know are in trouble, which basically means housing and the domestic auto industry," said Hoyt, who noted it was generally a tight labor market.

Caught in a housing slump and vulnerable to cold weather, the construction industry lost 62,000 jobs last month.

Economists closely watch the job figures to gauge the country's overall economic health. If consumers don't have jobs or feel uneasy about their employment, they decrease purchases.

February's chill also appears to have hurt sales at retailers last month, as seen in the lackluster same-store sales reported last week, which Hoyt said might have been reflected in stores' head counts.

Textile mills, which have been hit hard over the last decade by increased imports and technological enhancements that have allowed fewer workers to produce more, shed 2,800 seasonally adjusted jobs, cutting their total to 178,500. Textile product mills trimmed 1,000 positions, to 156,700. Apparel producers cut back by 1,300 positions, to 226,800.

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