The nation's unemployment rate shot up in December to its highest level in more than three years, hitting 6.1 percent as more than 1 million people joined the ranks of the unemployed since June, the government said Friday.

The worst three-month stretch of job losses since the depths of the 1981-82 recession hit the nation at the end of 1990, as 515,000 jobs were lost during the final quarter of the year, the Labor Department said.In a separate report Friday, the Commerce Department said orders to U.S. factories for manufactured goods fell 5.9 percent in November, the largest one-month plunge on record.

In Utah, the Utah Department of Employment Security said the unemployment rate in December remained at 4.3 percent, the same figure as November and the same as December 1989.

Lecia Parks Langston, chief economist for the department, said in light of the national unemployment rate increasing, Utah's rate remaining unchanged is a "welcome indicator of the state's solid economic growth.

"Many Utahns are focusing on the national labor market's poor performance and are forgetting that the Utah economy is still going strong. That's not to say that Utah will remain totally unscathed from the national malaise," she said.

Department officials said the increase in job creation slowed somewhat, but it still is expanding at 4.2 percent. The 30,000 new jobs created in Utah since December 1989 compares favorably to a national decline in jobs of 75,000 jobs in the same period.

Last month's rise in the national civilian jobless rate to 6.1 percent was 0.2 percentage point higher than November's 5.9 percent level. Unemployment has now risen 0.8 percentage point since June - its most rapid rise in eight years.

Even a mild recession - which the Bush administration acknowledged this week - could force an additional 1 million workers out of jobs by this summer and push unemployment up to 7 percent, many analysts predict.

That is expected to strain further the nation's unemployment insurance system, which already is eroded and providing benefits to less than half the nation's 7.6 million jobless. At least eight states are in danger of running out of money to pay unemployment benefits by midyear and an additional 20 states by December, Labor Department figures show.

Some analysts saw a glimmer of hope in Friday's unemployment report because last month's job losses were not nearly as dramatic as those of October and November, possibly indicating that any economic recession may not be as deep as had been feared when the big job losses of early fall were reported.

"It's a sign that the economy is not in a free fall. While we're still descending, the rate of descent is slowing. . . . We'll still see declines in the economy over the next six months or so, but at a slowing pace," said Irwin Kellner of Manufacturers Hanover Trust.

Friday's report showed that last month, payrolls fell by 76,000, a more moderate decline than the 259,000 job loss in November.

Hardest hit in December was manufacturing, which has been slumping for months.

Construction suffered again, too, losing 28,000 jobs in December to reflect a continued deterioration in the housing market. Since last spring, that industry has seen jobs tumble by close to 300,000, the government said.

Health services added 56,000 jobs.

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(Additional information)

Sears to eliminate 21,000 jobs\

Sears, Roebuck and Co., the nation's largest retail chain, announced Thursday it is eliminating 21,000 jobs in stores nationwide. It's the latest in a series of Sears cost-cutting moves and follows a poor holiday shopping season. Employees started getting pink slips this week. The cuts will continue through June 1 to eliminate administration and operations positions at Sears' 863 stores, spokesman Gerald Buldak said. Affected will be 3,500 full-time positions and 17,500 part-time jobs - more than 10 percent of the 206,000 employees in Sears stores.