By  on December 5, 2005

WASHINGTON — Accessories and apparel shops shed jobs and department stores boosted payrolls last month as the U.S. economy added 215,000 positions, the biggest gain since July and a turnaround from weak growth caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Apparel and textile producers cut jobs, though overall, industry employment appeared to have steadied.

Unemployment held steady at 5 percent in November, according to the Labor Department's monthly report on employment released Friday. The job growth came after the economy gained 44,000 jobs in October and 17,000 in September.

On the retail front, apparel and accessories stores shed 5,900 positions to employ 1.4 million. Department stores, which usually hire more workers in November to prepare for holiday sales, boosted payrolls by 7,100 to employ 1.6 million. Economists were uncertain why there was a discrepancy between specialty store and department store hiring.

Standard & Poor's chief economist David Wyss described the status of overall retail employment as "rather weak" and possibly a sign stores are nervous about the holiday season.

Despite a drop of 1,600 positions at apparel and textile producers, Charles McMillion, president and chief economist of MBG Information Services, said the industry's employment has stabilized as its 647,100 workers put in longer hours. The total number of hours worked for non-supervisory workers rose 0.4 percent at textile mills, 0.9 percent at textile product mills and 1.1 percent at apparel producers.

Still, textile mills reduced head count by 1,700 to 261,100, a loss partly offset by an increase of 1,300 workers in textile product mills, which employed 182,400 people. Apparel producers cut payrolls by 1,200 to 248,600 during the month.

"Although this has been another difficult year for the textile and apparel industry, the recent steps by the [Bush] administration to slow the flood of subsidized and cut-rate priced imports from China seem to have quickly resulted in a rare period of relative stability for industry output and employment," McMillion said in a research report.

The U.S. last month signed a deal with China that restrains imports in 34 kinds of apparel and textiles for the next three years.

The positive employment figures complemented a preliminary report on Gross Domestic Product that showed an annual rate of 4.3 percent in the third quarter, up from 3.3 percent during the second quarter.That growth came after the turmoil caused by Hurricane Katrina. The Labor Department also reported that 886,000 people 16 years and older were evacuated because of Katrina and that about half of them have returned to their previous residences. The evacuees have an unemployment rate of 20.5 percent.

The displacement of workers after Katrina has complicated the employment reading, making things look worse than they were in October and better than they actually were last month, said Ken Goldstein, economist at the Conference Board.

Goldstein said even with the strong increase in overall employment, hours worked fell 0.1 percent.

"There's probably less here than meets the eye," he said. "I don't think the economy's back on the fast track or anything close to the fast track."

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