The pace of hiring in February was an unexpectedly large improvement over the gains made in January. It was also the strongest showing since October.
But there are still about 9.5 million fewer jobs today than a year ago. Congress is considering a $1.9 trillion package of pandemic relief intended to carry struggling households and businesses through the coming months.
“What we’re seeing is broad, slow gains,” said Julia Pollak, an economist at the online job site ZipRecruiter. “It’s consistent with a slow reawakening of the labor market after a winter hibernation.”
The unemployment rate in February was 6.2 percent, down from the previous month’s rate of 6.3 percent. But as the Federal Reserve and top administration officials have emphasized, that number understates the extent of the damage.
Most of the February gains came in the leisure and hospitality industries, including restaurant and bars, which have been particularly hard hit by the pandemic. “There’s still a long way to go,” Ms. Pollak said, “but thank goodness it’s moving in the right direction and not continuing to hemorrhage jobs. The industry is a first rung on the ladder and employs so many young people.”
The retail and manufacturing sectors posted small gains. Losses in employment by state and local governments — mostly in education — pared the overall increase, however.
More than four million people have quit the labor force in the last year, including those sidelined because of child care and other family responsibilities or health concerns. They are not included in the official jobless count.
The impact has also been uneven. The share of Black women who have left the labor force is more than twice as high as the share of white men.
“We’re still in a pandemic economy,” said Julia Coronado, founder of MacroPolicy Perspectives and a former Federal Reserve economist. “Millions of people are looking for work and willing to work, but they are constrained from working.”
Millions of workers are still relying on unemployment benefits and other government assistance, and first-time jobless claims rose last week, but analysts have offered increasingly optimistic forecasts for growth later in the year.
Recruiting sites have had an increase in job postings in recent weeks. Tom Gimbel, chief executive of LaSalle Network, a Chicago staffing firm, said the employers he speaks to are “absolutely ready to hire.”