U.S. employers added more workers to payrolls than forecast inDecember and the jobless rate declined to an almost three-year low,showing that the labor market gained momentum heading into2012.

The 200,000 increase last month followed a revised 100,000 gainin November that was smaller than initially estimated, LaborDepartment figures showed in Washington. The median projection in aBloomberg News survey called for a December gain of 155,000. Theunemployment rate unexpectedly fell to 8.5 percent, the lowestsince February 2009, while hours worked and earnings climbed.

Sustained payroll gains are needed to chip away at joblessnessand support household spending, which accounts for about 70 percentof the world's largest economy. At the same time, the financialcrisis in Europe and political stalemate over ways to pare the U.S.budget deficit are risks companies may hold back amid concern theexpansion will slow.

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