Payroll provider ADP said Wednesday that businesses added just 119,000 jobs last month, far lower than a revised total of 201,000 jobs in March.
The number of jobs added was the fewest ADP has reported in seven months. Stock futures fell slightly after the report was released.
The survey covers hiring only in the private sector. And it has been known to deviate sharply from the government's figures, which will be released on Friday. For example, the government said employers added just 120,000 jobs in March — much lower than ADP's estimate.
Many economists said the ADP figures would not lead them to change their forecasts. Analysts expect the government will report Friday that employers added 163,000 jobs in April, according to a survey by FactSet. The unemployment rate is expected to stay at 8.2 per cent.
Paul Ashworth, an economist at Capital Economics, said in a note to clients that the report "will renew fears of another spring slump in the labour market."
But he added that even if the government's report confirms weak hiring in April, "we would still expect employment growth to start picking up again in a few more months."
The report is the latest example of the conflicting signals currently being sent by economic data.
The job market has slowed from the start of the year. The economy created an average of 246,000 jobs per month from December through February.
And the number of people seeking unemployment benefits has increased in the past month, suggesting that companies have laid off more workers.
Still, other recent data has been positive. The manufacturing sector expanded at the fastest pace in 10 months in April, a private trade group said Tuesday. That report found that manufacturers had added workers at the fastest pace in a year.
That contrasts with the ADP report, which said manufacturers cut 5,000 jobs.
The disparity between ADP's and the government's figures could reflect the way each gathers employment figures.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics draws its data from a survey of employers in government and the private sector. ADP derives its figures from the payroll data it processes for about 344,000 U.S. companies that employ 21 million people. Macroeconomic Advisers then adjusts that count to try to reflect the entire U.S. private-sector work force.
Even if job growth doesn't slow, the economy is growing too slowly to quickly lower the unemployment rate.
The economy grew at a 2.2 per cent annual pace in the first three months of the year, slower than the 3 per cent pace in the fourth quarter. Economists worry that isn't fast enough growth to support more hiring.