The average working week shrank to 33.2 hours from 33.3 hours, which analysts have said could mean lower production and income, damaging the economy further.

Barack Obama, the US president, said the figures were a "stark reminder'' of US
economic woes.

"Obviously, this is hitting the United States hard," Obama said as he addressed the global economic downturn during a joint press conference with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, ahead of a Nato summit there.

Despite the news, the Dow Jones Industrial Average on Friday closed higher on Friday, climbing 39.51 points, or 0.5 per cent, to 8,017.59 points, its highest close since February 9, following optimism on agreements forged at the G20 summit this week.

Al Jazeera's John Terrett in New York said that despite the poor unemployment data there was a feeling on the markets that the US economy was showing signs of a turnaround after better than expected auto sales and factory order figures. 

Food stamps

A record 32.2 million people, one-in-10 Americans, are now receiving food stamps -  the major US government programme used to combat hunger and help the poor buy food - the government said a day earlier.

The average benefit was $112.82 per person in January.

"A weakened economy means that many more individuals are turning to SNAP [Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program]/Food Stamps," said the Food Research and Action Center, an anti-hunger group.

The stamp benefits are set to rise by 13 per cent this month temporarily, under an economic stimulus law signed by Barack Obama, the US president - an increase of $80-a-month for a household of four.