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WASHINGTON, D.C. — The nation's businesses cranked up hiring in November after a two-month lull, a sign the labor market is back in the groove as the ill effects of the Gulf Coast hurricanes fade.

Employers expanded payrolls by 215,000 jobs last month, the most since July. The unemployment rate held steady at 5 percent.

The Labor Department's fresh snapshot of the jobs situation, released Friday, suggested employers are in a better hiring mood now that energy prices have retreated from record highs and disruptions to commerce from the hurricanes are easing.

For President Bush — confronted with some of the lowest job approval ratings of his presidency — recently improving economic news hasn't helped his standing with the public.

Seeking to change that, Bush embraced Friday's employment report. "We have every reason to be optimistic about our economic future," he said. "Our economic horizon is as bright as it's been in a long time."

Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and his colleagues, at their Nov. 1 meeting, maintained that the hurricanes would only temporarily crimp hiring. The employment report buttressed that notion.

Greenspan, in remarks Friday, said despite the hurricanes "economic activity appears to be expanding at a reasonably good pace as we head into 2006."

The hiring pickup came after two grim months for jobseekers.

"There's no question that business confidence was paralyzed right after the hurricanes," said Brian Bethune, economist at Global Insight. "Business leaders were looking at the situation and were a little bit uncertain how it was going to be resolved. So they put hiring plans on hold. Now that the proverbial smoke has cleared, they are saying: 'Let's hire.'"

In October, employers added just 44,000 jobs, even fewer than the government reported a month ago. In September — the month that bore the brunt of Katrina, the most costly natural disaster in U.S. history — payrolls grew by 17,000, according to revised figures. While that was an improvement from the loss of 8,000 jobs previously reported, it still marked the weakest job growth in two years.

The rebound in jobs follows other good economic news of late. A government report earlier this week showed the economy grew at a robust 4.3 percent pace in the third quarter, its best performance in more than a year, despite the hurricanes.

November's employment gains were pretty broad based. Construction jobs went up, partly reflecting hurricane rebuilding and cleanup. Retail, leisure and hospitality, education and health services, financial activities and even manufacturing were among those boosting jobs.

Workers' average hourly earnings increased to $16.32 in November, up 3.2 percent from the same month last year. That was the biggest rise since March 2003.

When inflation is factored in, though, "workers are basically treading water" in terms of wage gains, said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's

To keep inflation under control, the Fed has raised interest rates 12 times since June 2004. Another rate increase is expected on Dec. 13.

On Wall Street, the Dow Jones industrials closed down 35.06 points, as some investors worried the Fed might push rates higher than had been anticipated.

While Republicans hailed November's job growth, Democrats pointed out that some workers and job seekers are still struggling.

The unemployment rate for blacks jumped to 10.6 percent in November. That was up from 9.1 percent in October and was the highest jobless rate since February.

"The possibility of obtaining a job and developing economic security remains out of reach for too many African Americans and this negatively impacts every aspect of life," said Rep. Melvin Watt, D-N.C., chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus.

The unemployment rate for Hispanics rose to 6 percent in November, the highest since September.

In an encouraging sign for job seekers overall, the average time that the unemployed spent searching for work in November was 17.7 weeks. That was down from an average 18.1 weeks in October and was the best showing since July.

Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast in late August; Rita followed in late September. Those storms, which battered crucial oil and gas facilities, choked off commerce and destroyed businesses, sent energy prices skyward. Wilma hit in late October.

"The job market has clearly recovered from the setbacks and dislocations caused by the series of hurricanes," said Stuart Hoffman, chief economist at PNC Financial Services Group. He was confident good job growth would be maintained in coming months.

"We are back on track," he said.

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