UPDATE 1-Holiday hiring weakest in 20 years -Challenger

(Adds Challenger comments, November sales results)

NEW YORK, Dec 5 (Reuters) - A sharp pullback in consumer spending is giving retailers little to cheer about this holiday shopping season, with hiring in the sector the weakest in more than 20 years.

Retailers added 217,200 seasonal workers in November, the lowest gain for that month since 1988, when only 194,000 were hired, Challenger Gray & Christmas, an outplacement firm that tracks employment trends, said on Friday.

The seasonal hiring, however, failed to offset total retail job cuts. The sector had a net loss of 91,300 jobs in November, the U.S. Labor Department reported on Friday, the biggest monthly loss since April 1956, when 99,000 jobs were cut in the

The U.S. economy lost over half a million jobs last month, its weakest performance in 34 years. [ID:nN05431090]

If seasonal hiring continues at the current pace, Challenger said the number of additional holiday jobs may reach only 350,000, the lowest figure since 1982.

U.S. retailers are now in the midst of what could be the weakest holiday sales season in nearly two decades, as shoppers, squeezed by rising unemployment, falling home values and decreased access to credit, put the brakes on spending.

On Thursday, U.S. retail chain stores reported a 2.7 percent drop in November sales at stores open at least a year, according to the International Council of Shopping Centers, the weakest performance in more than 35 years.

The ICSC now expects holiday sales to be flat to down 1 percent, compared with its previous view of a 1 percent rise.

Challenger spokesman James Pedderson said retailers had added 698,000 seasonal workers for the 2007 holiday season, but then shed almost 946,000 jobs in January and February of 2008.

“That’s kind of been the trend over the last few years ... employment shrinks by more than it grew in the previous few months,” he said.

December seasonal hiring is expected to be weaker than the November result, he said, but the “big mystery” is how many jobs retailers will slash in January and February, once the holiday season subsides.

“They’re going to shed whatever they hired this year and depending on how bad the holiday selling season is we could see a lot of retailers closing up stores and going out of business,” he said. (Additional reporting by Pedro Nicolaci da Costa; Editing by Leslie Adler)