NEW YORK — The country's employment picture darkened further last month as employers trimmed their payrolls for the seventh straight month and the unemployment rate climbed to 5.7%, its highest level in more than four years, according to government data released Friday.
On the upside, the net loss of 51,000 jobs in July was smaller than the 75,000-job decline predicted on average by economists, and the Labor Department reported that employment shrank less in May and June than previously estimated.
The monthly job losses this year have been far short of the levels typically seen during troubled times, suggesting to some experts that the current downturn, brought on by the housing crisis and a surge in energy prices, could be shallow.
However, the job cuts show no sign of letting up and are spreading from long-suffering sectors such as manufacturing to the all-important service sector.
Seven consecutive monthly declines in employment suggest an economy "pretty darn close to a recession," said Robert MacIntosh, chief economist at money management firm Eaton Vance Corp. "I know they're not huge but they are losses, and they're symptomatic of what's happening out there."
There also are indications that the employment picture is bleaker than that cast by the official numbers.
July's cuts, for example, would have been worse without the net addition of 25,000 government positions. And just 41.2% of the industries surveyed by the government reported increases in payrolls in July, the lowest percentage this year, according to Goldman, Sachs & Co.
"Even though the job market is not showing a faster rate of decline, there is little job growth anywhere," said Joseph LaVorgna, chief U.S. economist at Deutsche Bank in New York.
The job report and a massive quarterly loss at General Motors Corp. weighed on the stock market. The Dow Jones industrial average fell 51.70 points, or 0.5%, to 11,326.32.
The rise in the unemployment rate from 5.5% in June put the indicator at its highest level since March 2004.
Employers have eliminated a net 463,000 positions this year. That includes 98,000 jobs cut in May and June, fewer than the 124,000 that the government previously reported.
Even if people keep their jobs, the data show that many Americans can't get the pay and hours they are seeking.
The average workweek fell one-tenth of an hour to 33.6 hours, and the number of people who are working part time because they can't find full-time positions rose 308,000 to 5.7 million.
"The drop in the workweek suggests that firms have cut hours instead of cutting jobs," said Robert Brusca, head of Fact and Opinion Economics. "If the weakness continues, history suggests that deeper job cuts will come next."
Combined with other data released in recent days, the employment report depicts an economy that is struggling to avoid a deep downturn but giving few indications that it can right itself any time soon.
The government reported Thursday that gross domestic product -- a measure of the economy's total output of goods and services -- expanded at a 1.9% annual clip in the second quarter.
That was up from 0.9% in the first quarter but was below expectations and was partly attributable to the government's economic-stimulus program, which is nearing its end. The government also revised its figures to show that the economy contracted in the fourth quarter of last year.
"One thing is perfectly clear," said Lou Crandall, chief economist at Wrightson ICAP, a research firm in Jersey City, N.J. "It doesn't matter whether we decide that this is a recession or not. This is clearly an important and painful event."
The troubled job market has stirred a debate about whether the government should enact a second stimulus package this year.
"It's pretty clear the tax rebate, while it helped a little bit, really didn't do what had been hoped in terms of providing some spark for the economy," said Christine Owens, executive director of the nonprofit National Employment Law Project.
The softness in employment makes it likely that the Federal Reserve will hold interest rates steady at its regular rate-setting meeting next week.
Among other highlights of the job report:
* Service-sector jobs fell by 5,000, their first drop since March. Private-sector service jobs declined by 30,000 in July, after drops of 17,000 in June and 48,000 in May, said Michael Darda, chief economist at MKM Partners in Greenwich, Conn.
* The number of temporary jobs fell by 29,000, showing how hesitant employers are to add positions. An increase in temp workers sometimes signals a turnaround because companies often hire them in the early stages of an expansion rather than risk the addition of permanent workers.
* The healthcare and mining sectors are still hiring. The number of healthcare jobs rose by 32,900 in July and is up 368,000 over the last 12 months. The mining sector, which includes oil and gas drilling, added 10,300 jobs in July and has gained 222,000 positions since reaching a low in April 2003.
* The jobless rate for teenagers jumped to 20.3% last month, the highest rate since October 1982, from 18.1% in June and 15.3% in July 2007.
Times staff writer Tom Petruno contributed to this report.