WASHINGTON — Apparel and accessories stores boosted payrolls in September, as the overall economy added 114,000 jobs and the unemployment rate fell below 8 percent for the first time in nearly four years, a Labor Department report showed Friday.
The unexpected drop in the unemployment rate could give a much-needed boost to President Obama, who has been facing widespread criticism for a lackluster performance during the first presidential debate against Republican challenger Mitt Romney on Wednesday night.
While the overall employment picture brightened last month, with the unemployment rate falling to 7.8 percent from 8.1 percent, it remained uneven for retailers and apparel and textile manufacturers. Specialty stores added 9,500 seasonally adjusted jobs to employ 1.39 million in September compared with August, while department stores cut 3,200 jobs to employ 1.5 million. Jobs at general merchandise stores, a category that includes department stores and discounters, remained flat at 3 million.
“We have now had five straight months of gains [in apparel specialty store employment],” said Scott Hoyt, director of consumer economics at Moody’s Analytics. “It appears the weakness in the early part of the year has led to subsequent improvement.”
Hoyt noted that department-store employment has been declining since February, and said it could be related to flat store expansion in the sector.
In the overall economy, he said, “A lot of it is that there are economic uncertainties out there. What happens with the elections, what happens with the fiscal cliff, what happens with the sovereign-debt situation in Europe and, to a lesser degree, what happens with energy prices? There are a lot of reasons for businesses to be uncertain about the future and therefore cautious in their hiring.”
In the manufacturing sector, apparel employment fell 1,000 to 144,500, but mills making apparel fabrics and yarns added 400 jobs to employ 119,400 in September. Employment at mills making home furnishings products fell 400 to 112,700.
With about a month to go before Election Day, the camps for the two candidates seized on the employment numbers.
The Labor Department report was welcome news for Obama, not only because the unemployment rate dipped below 8 percent for the first time since January 2009 but also because the agency revised July and August employment numbers, adding another combined 86,000 jobs to the economy.
“While there is more work that remains to be done, today’s employment report provides further evidence that the U.S. economy is continuing to heal from the wounds inflicted by the worst downturn since the Great Depression,” said Alan B. Krueger, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers. “It is critical that we continue the policies that are building an economy that works for the middle class as we dig our way out of the deep hole that was caused by the severe recession that began in December 2007.”
Krueger noted that the economy has now added private-sector jobs for 31 straight months.
Romney had a different take on the numbers.
“This is not what a real recovery looks like,” he said. “We created fewer jobs in September than in August, and fewer jobs in August than in July, and we’ve lost over 600,000 manufacturing jobs since President Obama took office.”
The economy lost 1.09 million manufacturing jobs in 2009, but gained 380,000 manufacturing jobs from 2010 through last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.