The Dow Jones industrial average ended 40.86 points lower at 14,565.25, a loss of 0.3 percent. The index was down as much as 171 points in the early going. It rose gradually throughout the day to reclaim much of its early loss.
U.S. employers added just 88,000 jobs in March, according to the Labor Department's monthly survey. That's half the pace of the previous six months. The report was far worse than economists had forecast and a disappointment for investors following positive signs on housing and the job market over the winter.
The survey, one of the most closely watched indicators of the economy, dented investors' confidence that the U.S. was poised for a sustained recovery. The stock market has surged this year, pushing the Dow to another record high close on Tuesday. The index is still up 11.2 percent this year.
"Things are still looking decent, but there's no doubt that this was a bit of a disappointment," said Brad Sorensen, Charles Schwab's director of market and sector research. "We're watching to see: is this the start of another soft patch?"
In other trading, the Standard & Poor's 500 index fell 6.70 points, or 0.4 percent, to 1,553.28. The index logged its worst week of year, falling 1 percent.
Technology stocks fell the most of the 10 industry groups in the index, dropping 1 percent. Among big decliners in tech stocks, Cisco Systems fell 43 cents, or 2 percent, to $20.61. Oracle dropped 34 cents, or 1 percent, to $32.03.
Investors were reducing their exposure to risk. The utilities and telecommunications industries bucked the downward trend in the market. Both rose 0.4 percent. The rich dividends and stable earnings provided by those companies make them attractive to investors who want to play it safe.
Natural gas companies were among the best performers on the S&P 500 as the price of the fuel rose 4.5 percent on concerns about supplies. The price of the fuel has risen 21 percent since the start of the year. Cabot Oil & Gas climbed $3.32, or 5.1 percent, to $67.96 and WPX Energy gained 80 cents, or 5.2 percent, to $16.15.
Stocks pared their early losses as some investors inferred that slowing U.S. growth meant that the Federal Reserve would stick to its stimulus program. The central bank is buying $85 billion dollars in bonds every month as part of an effort to revive the economy. Its actions have been a big factor pushing the stock market higher this year.
Quincy Krosby, a market strategist at Prudential Financial, said the slowdown in hiring made it more likely that the Fed would continue with its easy-money policy, which includes keeping interest rates at historically low levels.
Investors will shift their focus to earnings reports next week.
Alcoa, the first company in the Dow index to report earnings, will release its first-quarter financial results after the markets close Monday. Analysts expect profits for S&P 500 companies to rise 0.6 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period a year earlier, according to S&P Capital IQ. That compares with an increase of 7.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2012.
The yield on the 10-year Treasury note, which moves inversely to its price, plunged from 1.76 percent to 1.71 percent. The yield fell as low as 1.69 percent, the lowest since December. The benchmark rate has declined sharply over the last month, from 2.06 percent on March 11, as demand for low-risk assets increased amid mounting evidence that growth in the U.S. economy is slowing.
Matthew Coffina, an editor at Morningstar StockInvestor, said stocks are still a better investment than bonds over the next decade because bonds will be vulnerable to any rise in inflation or interest rates. "We still have a strong preference for stocks," Coffina said.
The Nasdaq composite, which includes many technology companies, fell 21.12 points, or 0.7 percent, to 3,203.86.
F5 Networks, a network equipment and service provider based in Seattle, plunged 19 percent, the most of any S&P stock, after slashing its profit and revenue forecast. The company said its contract bookings fell sharply, as did its business with the federal government. The stock lost $17.21, or 19 percent, to $73.21.
The Dow Jones Transportation Average, which includes airlines like United and Delta Airlines and shipping companies like UPS and FedEx, was down 3.5 percent for the week, its biggest weekly decline since September. The index is seen as a leading indicator of the broader market.