Employers added workers in December at about the same pace asthe prior month, and the unemployment rate matched a four-year low,showing sustained gains in the U.S. labor market even as lawmakerswere struggling to reach a budget deal.

Payrolls rose by 155,000 workers last month following a revised161,000 advance in November that was more than initially estimated,Labor Department figures showed today in Washington. The medianestimate of 82 economists surveyed by Bloomberg called for anincrease of 152,000. The unemployment rate held at 7.8 percent,matching the lowest since December 2008.

Improved hiring, hours worked and wages are helping underpinspending at retailers from Macy's Inc. to Gap Inc., where Decembersales beat analysts' estimates. Even bigger advances in employmentmay depend on lawmakers reaching an agreement on adeficit-reduction plan after Congress this week averted income-taxincreases on about 99 percent of households.

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