Non-farm payrolls dropped 80,000 last month, the third consecutive month that the labour market has contracted and the steepest drop since March 2003. Economists were expecting the loss of around 50,000 jobs.
January and February’s payrolls were revised lower by a total of 67,000 jobs bringing the total number of job losses in the first three months of the year to 232,000.
Perhaps more worrying for economists was an uptick in the unemployment rate from 4.8 per cent to 5.1 per cent, the highest since September 2005. The market was expecting an increase to a 5 per cent rate.
Stock futures fell back after the jobs report was released, the dollar retreated against the euro and US treasuries rallied.
The rise in the jobless rate was not altogether surprising because initial claims for unemployment benefit have been on an upward trend in recent weeks. First-time jobless claims this week rose above 400,000 for the first time since September 2005.
Job losses were concentrated in the construction (-51,0000), manufacturing (-48,000) and employment services (-41,800) sectors.
Economists fear a succession of job losses could force the US economy into a more serious downturn as consumers cut back on spending, sapping economic growth.
Ben Bernanke, Fed chairman, this week admitted for the first time that US economy could fall into recession this year.