By:  Abha Bhattarai and Andrew Van Dam
Source: The Washington Post

U.S. adds 678,000 jobs in February, with labor market nearing full recovery from pandemic

The unemployment rate has fallen to a pandemic low of 3.8 percent, the Labor Department said Friday

The U.S. economy created a blockbuster 678,000 jobs in February, adding momentum to a robust recovery that is rapidly returning the labor market to its pre-pandemic boom.

As the omicron variant of the novel coronavirus receded, the unemployment rate fell to a new pandemic low of 3.8 percent last month, from 4 percent in January, the Labor Department said Friday. Average hourly wages for private-sector workers, meanwhile, held steady, climbing by a mere one cent. Annual wages have risen 5.1 percent, although they have not kept up with inflation.

The rosy picture caps off 10 straight months of strong growth, with the economy picking up a record 7 million jobs over the past year and setting the stage for a full recovery by this summer, a little more than two years after the pandemic plunged the country into recession.

“Covid is loosening its grip. The virus ruled through fear, and that fear is fading,” said Austan Goolsbee, an economics professor at the University of Chicago and a former Obama White House adviser. “You see that around the country, as people are willing to go back out to jobs they weren’t willing to take in the midst of the pandemic.”

Job gains continued to be most pronounced in the service industries, such as hospitality, health care and construction, which have scrambled to hire enough workers to keep up with booming demand.

“We saw broad-based gains in every sector — in trucking, warehousing, construction, leisure and hospitality, even in nursing homes,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in an interview. “Ninety percent of the jobs lost in March and April of 2020 have been recovered.”

Friday’s jobs report was based on surveys conducted in mid-February, before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and does not reflect the impact of the geopolitical crisis on the U.S. labor market. And although economists say it is unclear exactly how the war might affect American jobs, they note that skyrocketing energy prices, slowdowns in consumer spending or looming uncertainty could prompt businesses to pause hiring in the coming weeks.

For now, workers have been pouring back into the labor market. The unemployment rate, which counts only those who actively looked for work in the past month, is at its lowest level in two years. A broader measure of unemployment, which includes those who want jobs but are not actively seeking them, dropped to 4.7 percent in February, nearing its precrisis rate of 4.3 percent.

“People are coming back to work,” said Nick Bunker, an economist at the jobs site Indeed. “We’ve been seeing this trend since last fall, but it’s become very stark recently, particularly among people of prime working age, between 25 and 54.”

But the gains were not evenly distributed. The unemployment rate for Black women rose to 6.4 percent in February, as tens of thousands left the workforce. Overall, fewer women worked or were looking for work in February than in January, while the labor force participation rate for men rose to its highest level during the pandemic. Also, the unemployment rates for Black and Hispanic workers — 6.6 percent and 4.4 percent, respectively — remained markedly higher than for other groups.