WASHINGTON — U.S. service companies expanded in March at a slower pace, dragged down by less growth in new orders and weaker hiring.

The Institute for Supply Management says its index of non-manufacturing activity fell to 54.4 last month from 56 in February. Any reading above 50 signals expansion. March’s figure is the lowest in seven months.

The report measures growth in industries that cover 90 percent of the work force, including retail, construction, health care and financial services.

Companies kept adding jobs, but at a reduced pace. A gauge of hiring fell 3.9 points to 53.3, the lowest since November. That is a negative sign for the government’s jobs report for March, to be released Friday.


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