(Payrolls article updated with additional detail and commentary.)

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- The nationwide unemployment rate pushed up to 9.6% last month, from 9.5% in July, the Labor Department said early Friday.

Nonfarm payrolls lost 54,000 jobs in August. Consensus projections provided by Briefing.com were calling for the headline number to drop by 120,000. The smaller-than-expected decline indicates the rate of job loss is easing.

Wall Street reacted quickly. Futures for the SPDR S&P 500 ( SPY), an exchange-traded fund that tracks the S&P 500, gained 1.2% in pre-market trading. The SPDR Dow Jones Industrial Average ( DIA) and PowerShares QQQ Trust ( QQQQ) each pushed up 1.1% ahead of the opening bell.

Further evidence of stabilization in the labor market came from a government report Thursday that showed fewer Americans filed for initial unemployment benefits last week than had been expected.

Temporary census-related jobs dropped by 114,000. Excluding census workers and other government workers, the private sector grew by 67,000 in the month, easily topping expectations for a gain of 30,000, and less than the revised 107,000 private-sector job gains in July.

The report also showed that 123,000 fewer jobs were lost in June and July than previously thought.

The nationwide unemployment rate of 9.6% represents the highest rate since May, and was in line with expectations.

Average hourly earnings edged up by 0.3%, or 3 cents, to $19.08. That beat expectations for a 0.1% uptick.

Earnings were up 1.7% year-over-year, while the average workweek was unchanged at 34.2 hours.

"We really need private businesses to step up and begin to hire more aggressively for this recovery to really gain momentum," Ryan Sweet, a senior economist at Moody's Economy.com, told Reuters.

On Thursday, the Labor Department said the number of Americans filing initial claims for unemployment benefits unexpectedly fell by 6,000 last week to 472,000. The figure was expected to edge up by 2,000 to 475,000 for the week ended Aug. 28, from 473,000 in the prior week, indicating the jobs market may be stabilizing.

On Wednesday private payrolls firm Automatic Data Processing ( ADP) reported that private employers unexpectedly shed 10,000 jobs in August, disappointing economists who had believed payrolls would pick up a modest 13,000 jobs. The reported July gain also was scaled back in the report's revisions, now showing private managers added 37,000 positions instead of the gain of 42,000 originally reported.

-- Written by Miriam Marcus Reimer in New York.

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