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Hiring has slowed to a crawl in recent months. The claims report comes one day before the Labor Department is scheduled to issue the August employment report. Those numbers are expected to show that private businesses added a net total of only 41,000 jobs last month, the fourth straight month of anemic hiring.

When government jobs are included, total payrolls are forecast to drop by 100,000 — based on about 115,000 temporary census jobs ending. The jobless rate is projected to rise to 9.6 percent from 9.5 percent, according to Thomson Reuters.

The number of people continuing to claim benefits fell by 23,000 to 4.46 million, the lowest since late June.

But that doesn’t include millions of people who are receiving extended benefits under emergency programs enacted by Congress during the recession. More than 5.4 million people were on the extended benefit rolls during the week of Aug. 14, the latest data available. That’s a drop of about 320,000 from the previous week.

Without more jobs, consumers likely will spend cautiously, making it harder for the economy to gain steam. Consumer spending accounts for about 70 percent of economic activity.

The pace of economic growth has slowed considerably from earlier this year, as the impact of the government’s stimulus package fades. Many economists are increasingly pessimistic that private companies will do enough hiring and spending to replace the impact of the stimulus.

The nation’s gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic output, grew at a 3.7 percent annual pace in the first quarter, but that growth slowed dramatically to 1.6 percent in the April-to-June period. That growth is not fast enough to bring down unemployment.

Economists at Bank of America-Merrill Lynch on Wednesday marked down their estimates of future economic growth. They now expect the economy to grow at only a 1.8 percent pace next year, down sharply from an earlier estimate of 2.3 percent.

That’s equivalent to a “growth recession,” says Bank of America’s top North American economist, Ethan Harris. A growth recession occurs when the economy grows slightly but not enough to reduce the unemployment rate.

Mr. Harris now expects the jobless rate to tick back up above 10 percent by early next year.

Comair, a regional airline owned by Delta Air Lines Inc., said Wednesday that it will reduce its fleet by half and cut jobs over the next two years to lower costs. The company, which employs about 2,600 people, didn’t say how many jobs would be affected.

Heavy equipment maker Caterpillar Inc., meanwhile, is headed in the other direction. It opened a new road grader factory Wednesday in North Little Rock, Ark., creating 600 jobs.

AP economics writer Martin Crutsinger contributed to this report.