The nation's unemployment rate increased to 5.8 percent in February and companies across the economy slashed 308,000 jobs, the steepest one-month slide since hiring hit a slump in the wake of the 2001 terrorist attacks.
With the country now on the verge of war with Iraq, the overall civilian jobless rate climbed a tenth of a percentage point from the 5.7 percent figure recorded in January, the Labor Department reported Friday.
Economists had predicted the modest rise, but they did not expect the hemorrhaging of jobs that wiped out large hiring gains the month before. Analysts actually had forecast job gains of 20,000.
Instead, employers last month shed the most jobs since November 2001, when they purged 327,000 from their payrolls following the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon.
David Wyss, chief financial economist at Standard and Poor's DRI, called the jobs report "dreadful."
"There's not a lot here to give you any optimism, frankly," he said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said the report should serve as an "important reminder" to Congress that President Bush's tax cuts, totaling $1.46 trillion over the next decade, needs to be passed. Fleischer acknowledged that the prospect of war has slowed down the economy.