American employers went on a stronger-than-expected hiring spree in February as a sharp drop in coronavirus infections and rising vaccinations loosened the pandemic’s grip on the labor market.
The US economy added 379,000 jobs last month, beating economists’ estimates for a gain of 171,000 on the heels of January’s addition of 166,000, more than triple the number previously reported.
The unemployment rate, meanwhile, edged down to 6.2 percent, its lowest level since the start of the COVID-19 crisis last March but still well above the 50-year low of 3.5 percent reached a year ago, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday.
The closely watched report suggests the job market is in for a big springtime bloom as businesses emerge from the wave of coronavirus lockdowns that hampered growth in the winter, experts said.
“In the coming weeks and months, as weather improves across the country, businesses welcome back more customers, and more vaccinations are administered, we should see a more substantial pick-up in hiring,” said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst at Bankrate.
But the workforce is still climbing out of the deep hole that the COVID-19 pandemic dug for the global economy nearly a year ago. Non-farm payrolls ended February with roughly 9.5 million fewer jobs than they had a year ago, meaning only about 13 million of the 22 million positions lost last spring have come back.
While the number of unemployed Americans was roughly flat at 10 million in February, the feds said another 4.2 million people were unable to look for work because of the pandemic, though that figure fell from 4.7 million in January.
The leisure and hospitality industries drove last month’s gains by adding 355,000 jobs after taking a beating from restrictions imposed to curb the winter’s deadly surge in COVID-19 infections.
Restaurants and bars added 286,000 jobs as states like California and New York relaxed limits on dining, while hotels added 36,000 and amusements, gambling and recreation establishments added 33,000.
“We’re also just seeing people become a bit more comfortable going to hotels and restaurants because many people are now vaccinated — there are grandparents traveling to visit their grandkids again,” ZipRecruiter labor economist Julia Pollak told The Post, adding that her job-search firm saw 15 percent more postings for open positions in February than it did a year ago.
But local and state governments shed 69,000 education jobs in February as schools struggled to reopen for in-person classes, according to the feds. The blue-collar construction and mining industries also lost 61,000 and 8,000 positions, respectively.
The job growth came as Congress debated a $1.9 trillion stimulus package meant to provide further relief for businesses trying to weather the pandemic as well as the millions of workers still relying on unemployment benefits.
The bill would also send $1,400 checks to an estimated 200 million American adults, which could add fuel to the smoldering economic fire as businesses continue to reopen.
“If you give it to people when they could spend it right away, then it could give more juice to the recovery,” Curt Long, chief economist and vice president of research at the National Association of Federally-Insured Credit Unions, told The Post. “The timing may work out better than people anticipated from that standpoint and not just get holed up in savings but be deployed into the economy.”