WASHINGTON (AP) - U.S. hiring gains held steady in November despite disruptions from Superstorm Sandy and employers' concerns about impending tax increases from the year-end "fiscal cliff."

Companies added 146,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent - the lowest in nearly four years - from 7.9 percent in October. The rate declined mainly because more people stopped looking for work and weren't counted as unemployed.

The government says Superstorm Sandy had only a minimal effect on the figures.

The Labor Department's report suggests that the job market is gradually improving. November's job gains were roughly the same as the average monthly increase this year of about 150,000. Most economists are encouraged by the job growth because it's occurred even as companies have reduced investment in heavy machinery and other equipment.

Employers added 49,000 fewer jobs in October and September combined than the government had initially estimated.

Economists note that the unemployment rate would have risen if more people hadn't stopped looking for work. Once people without jobs stop looking for one, they're no longer counted as unemployed.

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