WASHINGTON, Oct 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. unemployment rate dropped to a near four-year low of 7.8 percent in September, a potential boost to President Barack Obama's re-election bid.
The Labor Department said on Friday the unemployment rate, a key focus in the race for the White House, dropped by 0.3 percentage point to its lowest point since January 2009.
A survey of households from which the jobless rate is derived showed 873,000 job gains last month, the most since June 1983. The drop in unemployment came even as Americans come back into the labor force to resume the hunt for work. The workforce had shrank in the prior two months.
The household survey is volatile. A survey of business establishments showed employers added 114,000 jobs to their payrolls last month, a touch above economists' expectations for 113,000 jobs. Employment for July and August was revised to show 86,000 more jobs created than previous reported.
It was the second last report before the Nov. 6 election that pits Obama against Republican Mitt Romney.
A Reuters/Ipsos poll released on Thursday after Wednesday's first presidential debate showed Romney gained ground and is now viewed positively by 51 percent of voters. Obama's favorability rating remained unchanged at 56 percent.
Economists blame the so-called fiscal cliff for the slowdown in business hiring, which has left millions of Americans working either part-time or unemployed and too discouraged to look for jobs.
The Congressional Budget Office has warned that a failure by Congress to avoid the automatic tax hikes and government spending cuts that will suck about $600 billion out of the economy next year would knock the economy back into recession.
"Businesses are not hiring people, they want to wait and see how the election evolves and how the political landscape shapes up," said Sung Won Sohn, an economics professor at California State University Channel Islands in Camarillo, California.
Who's Hiring For The Holidays
Unemployment Rate Falls to 7.8%, Best Since January 2009
Seasonal job openings: 5,200
A staple of many shopping malls across the nation, the gourmet gift basket retailer relies heavily on holiday sales to add to its profits. A privately held company, Hickory Farms perennially hires as many as 6,000 seasonal workers to work at its stores, which it calls "Holiday Gift Centers." Though many jobs involve interacting with customers, the company also needs additional workers to fill stock and labor positions, which may include driving in some locations, it says.
Though it has no bricks-and-mortar stores to staff, Amazon.com Inc.'s seasonal hiring plans are nonetheless robust. It needs plenty of additional workers to help fill orders and keep products moving through its warehouses nationwide. The Seattle-based company, which is unveiling a new line of Kindle-brand electronic readers and tablets, also plans to add 2,000 new jobs at three new distribution centers to help deal with demand driven by the new devices.
The department store operator announced it September that it would ramp up holiday hiring by more than 10 percent from last year to support its business in stores and online. Wisconsin-based Kohl's Corp., which operates 1,134 stores in 49 states, plans to hire an average of 41 workers at each store, a 4 percent increase from last year. The company also expects to add about 5,700 seasonal positions at distribution centers and more than 30 seasonal credit operations jobs.
The former No. 1 seller of toys in the U.S., Toys R Us Inc. credits a gradually improving economy and an increase in consumer spending for its decision to hire 11 percent more seasonal workers than the 40,000 it did in 2011. Of those it hired last year, Toys R Us says roughly 15 percent of them were kept on after the holiday sales season ended.
The holidays are the busiest time of year for the world's largest retailer and the company plans to hire more than 50,000 temporary workers to help keep store shelves and move customers through checkout lines as the 2012 holiday season approaches. Walmart Stores Inc. also plans to give existing employees the chance to work more hours during the season, acknowledging complaints among some workers who said they weren't able to work as many hours as they would have liked.
Though far smaller than rival Walmart, the nation's No. 2 retailer nonetheless plans to hire plenty of holiday season workers in 2012. The Minnesota-based company plans to add 80,000 to 90,000 seasonal jobs, down a bit from the 92,000 it hired last year. Hiring forecasts are likely be held in check by Target's expectations of an "ultracompetitive" holiday sales season. Target Corp., along with Walmart, is keeping an eye on expenses, which of course includes labor costs, so as to lower prices and stimulate sales.
The king of all department stores, Cincinnati-based Macy's Inc. said it's hiring nearly 3 percent more seasonal staff than it did last year, in anticipation of higher holidays sales. Sales associates and call center employees are among the positions Macy's is looking to fill, which also include those in its distribution and fulfillment centers, to support the department store operator's growing online business.
Best Buy Co. plans to hire about 9,000 more seasonal workers as it did last year, though this year's number is still below the 29,000 it hired in 2010. In July, the world's largest consumer electronics chain cut 600 of its "Geek Squad" employees in response to weak sales. The boost in seasonal hiring is helping to contribute to what analysts say is the best year of seasonal-job creation that the U.S. has seen in five years.
Much like Best Buy, GameStop has seen its sales erode as more and more consumers turn to buying online. Faced with strong competitors such as Amazon, GameStop has nonetheless managed to hold its own in terms of sales and profits. As with most retailers, the Grapevine, Texas-based company derives much of its sales during the all-important holiday sales season -- and its more than 4,400 stores in the U.S. need more staff to help keep those cash registers ringing.
J.C. Penney Co. has struggled to remake its namesake JCPenney stores into a retail business that's more modern and less reliant on discounts to draw customers. And the coming holiday shopping season will be an important test of whether the signs of improvement that Plano, Texas-based company has lately been showing are real or not. Sales are expected to be tepid this holiday season, but at least one company representative says that won't affect the need for seasonal workers. "[It] looks like there will be another increase this year over last year's hiring," said, Bob Parker, a site manager for JCPenney in Sarasota, Fla., "probably by as much as 10 to 20 percent in some cases."
The fall is prime season for privately held Party City Holdings Inc., which is perhaps best known as a seller of Halloween costumes. But the retailer also sells party supplies and seasonal decorations, which result in a steady flow of customers this time of year. The Rockaway, N.J.-based company has 600 stores nationwide. In addition to its namesake Party City stores, it also operates The Paper Factory, Halloween City and Factory Card & Party Outlet shops.
It takes a lot more workers to help move the millions of boxes and packages Americans send to each other each holiday season. And though FedEx Corp. expects shipping volume will be up 13 percent, it's hiring about as many workers as it did last holiday season. The company says it can stick with the same number of seasonal workers as last year because it has been hiring staff throughout 2012.
The Memphis, Tenn.-based company, which is closely watched as an indicator of consumer demand and economic health, anticipates handling more than 280 million shipments during the holiday season from Thanksgiving to Christmas. Competitor UPS added about 55,000 workers for the holidays last year, 10 percent more than it hired in 2010.
With expectations of delivering 527 million packages this holiday season, UPS Inc. is adding 55,000 workers to sort, load and deliver packages, the same number it hired last year, but 10 percent higher than in 2010. Based on the company's forecast, it appears those and full-time UPS workers will be busiest during the final week before the Christmas holiday. UPS says 28 million, or 5 percent of packages, will be delivered Thursday, Dec. 20 -- projected to be the busiest of the year.
"Everyone has kind of battened down the hatches," Sohn said before the release of the report.
Persistently poor labor market conditions led the Federal Reserve in September to announce a plan to buy $40 billion worth of mortgage-backed securities each month until it sees a sustained turnaround in employment.
The central bank, which also pledged to keep overnight lending rates near zero until at least mid-2015, hopes the purchases drive down long-term borrowing costs and spur the recovery.
The Fed's ultra-easy stance has started to free up credit, giving a lift to consumers, economists said. That, in turn, helped lift retail hiring in September.
Temporary help jobs, which are often seen as a harbinger for permanent hiring, fell 2,000 after being almost flat in August.
Manufacturing payrolls fell for a second straight month.
Construction employment rose 5,000, benefiting from the rise in home construction, as demand for housing rises against the backdrop of record low mortgage rates
Government payrolls rose 10,000 after increasing 45,000 in August. Average hourly earnings rose 7 cents last month, which could support spending.