WASHINGTON – U.S. hiring accelerated more quickly than expected last month, evidence that a year after the pandemic took hold, the economy is strengthening as virus cases drop and vaccinations ramp up.
A government report Friday showed that employers added a robust 379,000 jobs in February, driven by a sharp increase at beleaguered restaurants and bars. That suggests Americans are starting to venture out and spend more as progress is made against the coronavirus and states relax business restrictions.
The February gain marked a sharp pickup from the 166,000 jobs that were added in January and the loss of 306,000 in December. Yet it represents just a fraction of the roughly 9.5 million that the economy must regain to get back to where it was before the crisis.
Unemployment fell from 6.3% to 6.2%, the Labor Department said. That is down dramatically from 14.8% last April, just after the virus erupted in the United States. But it's well above the pre-pandemic rate of 3.5%.
“The recovery really has some legs, some momentum now,” said Odeta Kushi, deputy chief economist at First American Financial Corp.
Stocks see-sawed through the day but ended sharply higher, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average rising 572 points, or about 1.9%, and the S&P 500 moving up nearly 2%.
In suggesting the economy is on the mend, the report could complicate President Joe Biden’s struggle to push through his $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief package, which passed the House and is before the Senate.
It would provide, among other things, $1,400 checks to most adults, hundreds more in weekly unemployment benefits and another round of aid to small businesses at a time when many Americans have seen their income shrivel and have fallen behind on rent, mortgages and other bills.