Hiring around the U.S. sped up in February, the first full month of the Biden presidency, in a sign that the labor market is gathering strength.
Employers added 379,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department said Friday, more than double what economists had expected. The nation's unemployment rate ticked down to 6.2% from 6.3%.
It's the best month of job gains since October, before the latest wave of COVID-19 infections led to widespread restaurant closures and other business shutdowns. The leisure and hospitality sector, which lost half a million jobs over the holidays, accounted for nearly all of February's payroll gains, with 355,000 jobs added.
"This number is a surprise but it's essentially all about the re-opening boost to the jobs market arriving earlier than expected," Brian Coulton, chief economist at Fitch, said in a note. "The leisure and transport sector accounted for a very high share of the job gains in the private sector, as social distancing restrictions were eased and employment in those sectors went back to October 2020 levels."
Health care and retail trade each added just over 40,000 jobs, while manufacturing added 21,000. Those gains were offset by a drop of 86,000 jobs in government and 61,000 in construction, due largely to severe winter storms in the middle of last month.
Bad month for Black workers
Despite the overall job gains, February was a setback for Black workers, the only demographic group where unemployment rose last month. Joblessness for Black workers jumped to 9.9% from 9.2% the previous month.
The rate "rose for all the wrong reasons," AFL-CIO chief economist William Spriggs said on Twitter. Black men and women lost work, while the unemployment rate for Black men — 10.2% — rose above that for workers without a high-school degree, Spriggs noted.
If the unemployment rate were adjusted to account for people dropping out of the workforce, who are not normally counted as unemployed, Black workers' unemployment would be near 15%, according to the White House Council of Economic Advisers.
The unemployment rate for Asian American workers dropped to 5.1%, from 6.6% last month. The unemployment rate stayed mostly flat for other demographic groups.
Less-educated workers saw a similar hit. The unemployment rate increased for workers with a high school degree or less, while dropping for those with some college or a bachelor's degree.
Still, the better-than-expected total job gains are dwarfed by the scale of the economic damage wrought by COVID-19. The U.S. has lost nearly 10 million jobs since last year, and many economists believe the labor market won't return to full health until 2022.
"The economy would need to add almost 1 million jobs a month for the rest of 2021 to return to pre-crisis levels by the end of the year," wrote Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the job site Glassdoor. "That rate of recovery is a tall order at this point in the pandemic, though not completely out of the question once the economy can fully reopen safely."
The Congressional Budget Office projects that the nation will add 6.2 million jobs this year.
The Associated Press contributed reporting.