The US economy saw better-than-expected hiring in February as businesses battered by the pandemic began recruiting employees again, even as Congress moved forward with President Joe Biden’s massive stimulus proposal despite Republican opposition.
Payrolls jumped by 379,000 last month, which was almost double expectations and pushed the unemployment rate down slightly to 6.2 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday, in a sign the world’s largest economy may finally be healing.
The vast majority of the gains were in the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes the bars and restaurants that were the first to close as business restrictions to stop Covid-19 began nearly a year ago.
Yet the economy was still short 9.5 million jobs compared to February 2020 before the pandemic began, the report said.
Biden said the data underscore the need for lawmakers to approve his plan for nearly $1.9 trillion in aid, and his economic advisers said the current pace of job gains mean it would take two years to recover to pre-pandemic levels.
“We can’t go one step forward and two steps backward,” Biden said at the White House. “The rescue plan is absolutely essential to turning this around.”
Biden’s proposal would be the third major stimulus package to help the economy weather the Covid-19 crisis, and includes a range of measures such as expanded aid for small businesses and the unemployed as well as stimulus checks for Americans.
However, the Republican opposition has argued the proposal is excessive, since the economy already has begun to recover.
The proposal faces a narrow path to passage in the Senate, which on Friday began the final debate, after one Republican demanded staff read the 628-page bill aloud, which took nearly 11 hours and concluded in the wee hours of the morning.
Unemployment in the United States was at a record low before the pandemic began but spiked to 14.7 percent last April after the Covid-19 restrictions were imposed.
Joblessness has declined in the months since, but at an increasingly slow pace.
The sentiment after the February report was much more upbeat, with Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics calling it “an early blossom for employment.”
But outside the strong hiring by restaurants and bars, other sectors saw smaller gains, with temporary health services adding 53,000 jobs and health care and social assistance adding 46,000.
Some industries saw further job losses, including education, which shed nearly 70,000 positions, and construction, which dropped 61,000.
And millions of people, many of them women trying to juggle schooling and childcare duties, have left the workforce entirely during the past year.
The labor force participation rate, gauging the share of the working-age population actually employed or looking for work, languished at 61.4 percent, the same level as in January and its lowest rate since the mid-1970s. For women 16 and older, the rate is 55.8 percent
And the Labor Department’s broadest measure of joblessness, reflecting workers who have left the labor force altogether, are discouraged from looking for work or cannot find a full-time position, was at 11.1 percent, indicating the depth of the employment crisis.
Meanwhile the unemployment rate for African Americans, who already faced higher joblessness than other groups, ticked up 0.7 percentage points to 9.9 percent.
“The core story here is that the reopening of services will be the dominant factor in the payroll numbers over the next few months,” said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics, who predicted March could see a payroll increase of one million jobs.
The report did little to change the dynamic in the Senate, where Democratic leader Chuck Schumer continued to press for passage of Biden’s proposal, arguing the economy remained in the doldrums.
“If you just look at a big number, you say, everything is getting a little better,” he said Friday. But “it’s not for the lower half of America.”
But Republican minority leader Mitch McConnell decried the bill as “a parade of left-wing projects” and said “our country’s already set for a roaring recovery.”
A day earlier, Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell — who has steered clear of partisan politics but repeatedly called for more stimulus spending — warned that United States is facing a lengthy recovery and will not reach maximum employment this year.
“It’s a lot of ground we have to cover,” he said.
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