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Apr 21, 1:02 PM EDT

Employers cut jobs in 31 US states as growth slows


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WASHINGTON (AP) -- Employers in 31 U.S. states cut jobs last month as weak economic growth weighed on hiring and a slowdown in oil and gas drilling caused big job losses in some states.

The Labor Department said Tuesday that unemployment rates rose or were unchanged in 27 states and fell in 23 states. Eighteen states gained jobs, while employment was unchanged in Idaho.

The biggest job cuts occurred in states with large oil and gas drilling, led by Texas, which lost 25,400 jobs, and followed by Oklahoma, which cut 12,900. Pennsylvania lost 12,700, the third largest loss. A sharp fall in oil prices since last June has caused oil and gas companies to cut back on drilling. Pennsylvania has benefited in recent years from the discovery of shale gas fields in the state.

Nationwide, employers added just 126,000 jobs in March, the fewest in 15 months and snapping a year-long streak of monthly gains above 200,000. The unemployment rate remained 5.5 percent.

Harsh winter weather and a labor dispute at West Coast ports that disrupted shipping dragged down the economy in the first three months of the year. Consumers, meanwhile, have saved much of the windfall they have received from cheaper gas prices, lowering spending. And a big jump in the dollar's value also has made U.S. exports more expensive and lowered overseas sales of U.S. goods.

All told, economists forecast that growth slowed to an annual rate of 1 percent or less in the first quarter, down from a roughly 3.4 percent pace in the second half of last year. Still, most analysts expect hiring and growth to rebound this spring.

The cutbacks in oil and gas production have also led to job losses in North Dakota, which had experienced an oil and gas boom since the recession. The boom sent the unemployment rate falling to the lowest in the nation.

But in February its unemployment rate rose and the state no longer had the lowest unemployment rate nationwide. It rose again in March, to 3.1 percent. Nebraska now has the lowest rate, at 2.6 percent.

Nevada reported the highest unemployment rate, at 7.1 percent.

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