The U.S. economy shed 48,000 jobs last month and the unemployment rate jumped to 6% from 5.8%, matching the high it hit in December.

The decline in nonfarm payrolls now totals 525,000 over the last three months, reflecting among other things concerns about the Iraq war and the general economic lethargy afflicting the U.S. since the year began.

Economists had been forecasting a slightly greater job loss of about 60,000, although some whisper numbers were as high as 100,000. Stock futures had a mildly positive reaction to the print.

Average hourly wages increased 0.1% in the month. Average weekly hours worked fell about 20 minutes to 34 hours.

The last time the unemployment rate was higher was July 1994, when it hit 6.1%. Payrolls fell by 124,000 in March and 357,000 in February, making it only the second time in more than 50 years the economy has shed jobs for three straight months in the absence of a formal recession.

Among sectors, manufacturing gave up 95,000 jobs -- the 33rd consecutive month factories have trimmed payrolls -- and airlines shed 18,000 jobs. On the plus side, local governments added 35,000 jobs, and health care added 13,000.

Service employment in service-producing industries rose 25,000 last month after dropping by 100,000 the previous month.