The US economy added 379,000 jobs in February, far outpacing expectations amid a sharp drop in coronavirus infections that helped loosen the pandemic’s grip on the labor market.
Hiring accelerated significantly last month after non-farm payrolls added 166,000 jobs in January amid a deadly surge in COVID-19 cases that led many states to impose new lockdown measures, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday.
Economists were expecting a job gain of just 171,000 last month, according to Wrightson ICAP.
The growth came as the unemployment rate ticked down 6.2 percent — still above the 50-year low it reached a year ago but well below last April’s pandemic peak of 14.7 percent.
While the closely watched jobs report contained glimmers of hope, the economy still ended February with about 9.5 million fewer jobs than it had a year ago, and 8.9 million of the 22 million jobs lost last spring have yet to return.
“It will likely be next year at the earliest that we get them all back,” said Dan North, senior economist at Euler Hermes North America.
Last month’s job growth coincided with the continued rollout of COVID-19 vaccines that are expected to help hard-hit businesses like restaurants, bars, hotels and movie theaters fully reopen.
More than 2 million shots are now going into Americans’ arms each day, and the pace is likely to ramp up further now that regulators have cleared a third vaccine from Johnson & Johnson.
Congress is also debating a $1.9 trillion stimulus package that will provide further financial relief for businesses trying to weather the pandemic as well as the millions of workers who are still relying on unemployment benefits.