WASHINGTON — U.S. employers added a surprisingly robust 379,000 jobs last month in a sign the economy is strengthening as virus cases drop, vaccinations ramp up, Americans spend more and states ease business restrictions.
The February gain marked a sharp pickup from the 166,000 jobs that were added in January and the loss of 306,000 in December. Yet it represents just a fraction of the roughly 9.5 million that the economy must regain to get back to where it was before the crisis.
Unemployment fell from 6.3% to 6.2%, the Labor Department reported Friday. That is down dramatically from 14.8% last April, just after the virus erupted in the United States. But it's well above the pre-pandemic rate of 3.5%.
“The recovery really has some legs, some momentum now,” said Odeta Kushi, deputy chief economist at First American Financial Corp.
In suggesting the economy is on the mend, the strong jobs report could complicate President Joe Biden’s struggle to push through his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which passed the House and is before the Senate.
It would provide, among other things, $1,400 checks to most adults, hundreds more in weekly unemployment benefits and another round of aid to small businesses at a time when many Americans have seen their income shrivel and have fallen behind on rent, mortgages and other bills.
Biden said Friday that previous government aid had contributed to February’s job gains, and he insisted the new package is needed to help keep the recovery going.
“Without a rescue plan, the gains are going to slow,” he said. “We can’t afford one step forward and two steps backward.”
About 4 million people who have lost their jobs have stopped looking for work and so are not classified as unemployed. If they were included, along with a separate group that was misclassified as working, the unemployment rate would be 9.3%, according to Oxford Economics.
Still, one year after the pandemic triggered a sudden recession, economists are increasingly optimistic that hiring will accelerate in the coming months as Americans seize the opportunity to once again travel, shop, attend sporting events, go to the movies and eat at restaurants.
Households as a whole have accumulated a huge pile of savings as Americans slashed their spending. Much of that is expected to be spent once people feel more comfortable about going out.
Last month's job growth was driven by a steady recovery of bars, restaurants and hotels. Bars and restaurants, in particular, snapped back, adding 286,000 jobs as business restrictions eased in California and other states. This week, Texas joined some other states in announcing it will fully reopen its economy.
Also hiring last month were retailers, which added 41,000 jobs, health care companies, with 46,000, and manufacturers, with 21,000. On the other hand, construction companies shed 61,000 jobs, most likely in part because of the severe storms and power outages in Texas.
Stefan Coker, the owner of What's Pop-In, a gourmet popcorn company in Buffalo, New York, said people seem increasingly comfortable about shopping in person. His online sales are also growing, and he hopes to strike a deal with the grocery chain Wegman's to sell in those stores.
To meet growing demand, he is moving into a larger storefront with warehouse space, and he plans to hire two or three more workers in the coming months.
“I'm seeing a major difference now in in-store sales,” Coker said. “Walk-in traffic has doubled. It's been amazing to see.”
With the pandemic easing, he said, the company is also fielding more inquiries about custom bags for weddings and baby showers.
The virus has killed more than a half-million Americans. Deaths and new cases per day have plummeted over the past two months, though they are still running alarmingly high. The U.S. is averaging nearly 1,800 deaths and 62,000 newly confirmed infections per day.
The U.S. has administered over 82 million COVID-19 vaccine doses, according to the Centers Disease Prevention and Control. More than 21% of the nation's adults have received at least one shot, and close to 11% have been fully vaccinated.
“The best stimulus is vaccination,” said Constance Hunter, chief economist at KPMG. “My hope is that we don't backslide on the virus” as states reopen.
The job gains last month were sharply uneven. The unemployment rate among whites fell slightly, to 5.6%, and among Hispanics, to 8.5%. Among Asians it dropped to 5.1%. But for Black Americans it jumped from 9.2% to 9.9%.
Women fared slightly better than men, with unemployment dropping among women from 6.3% to 6.1%, while men's unemployment fell one-tenth of a percentage point to 6.3%. More women started looking for work, though millions of them have had to stop their job searches to care for children during the outbreak.
Lane S. Fulton, who lives in Bloomington, Indiana, has been mostly unemployed since the crisis began last March.
He said he has applied for roughly 600 government positions after earning a graduate degree in public administration from Indiana University in the fall of 2019. But state and local governments have slashed 1.4 million jobs since the pandemic erupted, including 86,000 last month, and most have instituted hiring freezes.
Fulton was also thrown out of work from his part-time job at Panera Bread last March.
The federal government's moratorium on collecting student loans allowed him to redirect his $600 monthly payment to more urgent bills.
“That pause was what allowed me to survive when I wasn't getting unemployment,” he said.
With so much money being pumped into the economy, Oxford Economics forecasts that growth will reach 7% for all of 2021, which would be the fastest calendar-year expansion since 1984. The Congressional Budget Office projects the nation will add a substantial 6.2 million jobs this year.
Still, the size of the Biden relief package, coming as the economy is already showing improvement, has stoked fears that growth could overheat and accelerate inflation, possibly leading the Federal Reserve to jack up interest rates. Those fears have roiled financial markets for the past two weeks.
Fed Chair Jerome Powell sought to assuage those concerns on Thursday — without success, based on sharp selloffs in the stock and bond markets — when he suggested that any meaningful rise in inflation would probably prove temporary and that the Fed would be in no hurry to raise its benchmark short-term rate.
Sounding an optimistic note, he said: “There’s good reason to expect job creation to pick up in the coming months."
EXPLAINER: 5 key takeaways from the February jobs report
WASHINGTON — America's job market delivered a surprising burst of strength in February. It lifted hopes that the rollout of viral vaccines, the distribution of federal aid and the increasing willingness and ability of consumers to go out and spend will invigorate the economy as the weather warms up.
Employers added 379,000 jobs, the government said Friday, the most since October and far surpassing economists' predictions. The unemployment rate, which dipped to 6.2%, has now dropped nearly every month since it peaked at 14.8% in April of last year after the pandemic erupted in the United States and inflicted breathtaking job losses.
Shut down for much of last year, the economy has been gradually reopening as more people are vaccinated and fewer are being infected. The number of confirmed new coronavirus cases has dropped to an average below 60,000 a day from nearly 250,000 in early January, according to Johns Hopkins University.
A government aid package late last year also delivered $600 checks to most adults, coming on top of an even bigger economic rescue last spring. President Joe Biden is seeking to give households yet another boost with a $1.9 trillion relief package that would add benefits for the unemployed and send $1,400 to most families.
“Improving health conditions, expanding vaccine distribution and generous fiscal stimulus will form a powerful cocktail that lifts real (economic) growth to 7% in 2021,’’ reversing last year’s 3.5% drop, Gregory Daco and Lydia Boussour of Oxford Economics said in a research note. They expect the economy to add an average of roughly 580,000 jobs a month this year.
Here are five takeaways from the February jobs report:
No area of the economy endured more devastation from the pandemic recession than the leisure and hospitality sector. Now, as more bars, restaurants and hotels reopen to fuller capacity, this industry has been regaining many of its lost jobs.
In February, leisure and hospitality added 355,000 jobs — more than 90% of the economy's total gain. The added jobs included 286,000 at restaurants and bars alone.
Many of those jobs are returning as California and Texas — the two most-populous states — more fully reopen their economies, along with some other states. Yet so deep were last year's job losses in leisure and hospitality that the sector is still down 3.5 million jobs from its pre-pandemic level. Even if February's torrid pace could be maintained, it would take 10 more months for the leisure and hospitality industry to regain its pre-pandemic level of jobs. And that doesn't even include the additional jobs this sector would have added over the past year under normal circumstances.
AN EARLY SPRING
February’s job growth was about twice the number that economists had expected. And the landscape looked better in the rear-view mirror, too. The government's revised estimates added a net 38,000 jobs for December and January combined.
Most economists also shrugged off one dose of bad news in Friday's report: A loss of 69,000 construction jobs that was probably a temporary consequence of freezing winter weather and power outages in Texas and elsewhere. And the shedding of 86,000 government jobs in February reflected, in part, technical issues involved in accounting for school closings and re-openings in the face of the pandemic.
A LOST YEAR
One year ago, the pandemic had yet to strike the United States hard. As a result, last month's data illustrates just how much damage the virus did to the job market in 12 months. The comparisons to the pre-pandemic days are ugly.
Despite last month's impressive gain, the economy is still down roughly 9.5 million jobs from February 2020. And the proportion of adults who are either working or looking for work — the so-called labor force participation rate — was 61.4% in February, down sharply from 63.3% a year earlier. This proportion is now close to where it was back in the mid-1970s, before a huge influx of women entered the American workforce. What's more, February’s 6.2% unemployment rate, though down significantly from last spring, is still high compared with 3.5% one year earlier.
February's job growth did nothing to reduce the chronic disparities between white Americans and minorities that reflect broader economic inequalities.
The unemployment rate for Black Americans rose last month for the first time since April, surging from 9.2% in January to 9.9% in February. The number of African Americans who said they were employed fell by 164,000. And the number who said they were unemployed rose by 129,000.
By contrast, unemployment fell slightly last month for whites (from 5.7% to 5.6%, a rate much lower than for minorities) and for Hispanics (from 8.6% to 8.5% ).
GONE FOR GOOD
Employers continued to call back workers they had furloughed after the virus hit last year. But many jobs appear to be gone for good, and those who held those positions could remain out of work indefinitely.
The number of Americans on temporary layoff plunged by 517,000 last month to 2.2 million. At the same time, the ranks of the permanently unemployed remained stuck at a lofty 3.5 million, down just 6,000 from January. The permanent job losers have now outnumbered the temporarily jobless every month since September.