Good Friday, indeed.
The US jobs report for March was a blowout — far better than analysts had expected and the strongest sign yet that employers have been cheered by accelerating vaccinations, fewer social-distancing restrictions, and the $1.9 trillion in relief spending recently OK’d by Congress.
The economy added 916,000 jobs last month, the biggest gain in seven months, the Labor Department said Friday. Hard-hit restaurants and bars led the way, but most industries added workers.
The unemployment rate dropped 0.2 percentage points to 6 percent.
The news was unambiguously good, evidence that the recovery is picking up steam after a winter lull.
“We were expecting a big number and today’s jobs report delivered in a major way,” said Eric Merlis, managing director at Citizens Bank in Boston.
But let’s step back for a moment to note there were still 9.7 million unemployed Americans last month. That’s 4 million more than in February 2020, before the coronavirus pandemic devastated the economy.
The broadest Labor Department measure of unemployment ― which includes people who want a job but aren’t looking, as well as workers employed part time for economic reasons — stood at 17.4 million in March.
A disproportionate number of those stuck in that category are people of color, who are overrepresented in the low-wage service businesses that suffered the steepest cuts last year. The unemployment rate for Black Americans was 9.6 percent last month, while the rate among Latinos was 7.9 percent. The jobless rate for white workers was 5.4 percent.
“Disparities within the workforce continue to be a major concern,” said Marty Walsh, the former Boston mayor who is now the secretary of labor, though he lauded the jump in payrolls as “very good news.”
The economic recovery has arrived a pivotal point, with states rushing to vaccinate as many people as possible before potentially more virulent variants of the coronavirus have a chance to spread even more widely. There may be a setback or two, but the vaccinations should win out by the end of the year.
Hiring momentum is building. March was the third straight month in which payrolls expanded, after a drop of some 300,000 in December, and the numbers for January and February were revised substantially higher.
Restaurants and bars drove a gain of 280,000 jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector last month, accounting for nearly one-third of the overall increase. Many states have eased capacity restrictions for these businesses.
Others sectors showing strong growth in March included education, which added 190,000 jobs as more schools reopened. Employment in the construction industry expanded by 110,000 after a weather-related decline in the previous month. And jobs in professional and business services increased by 66,000 with the addition of more administrative and support positions.
Health care, a key segment of the Massachusetts economy, saw little change in employment.
As the end of the pandemic comes into sight, people are jumping back into the labor force, which expanded by 347,000 to 160.5 million last month.
The labor force is comprised of employed workers and those looking for a job. That pool shrunk dramatically during the crisis, in part because parents, mostly women, were forced to stay home to care for children while schools were closed. There were nearly one million fewer women over 20 years old in the labor force last month than before the pandemic.
The job market recovery has a ways to go. Even at last month’s supercharged growth rate — it was the second-largest monthly increase on record, excluding the extraordinary rebounds that followed the crash in March and April of last year — employment wouldn’t be back to the peak of February 2020 for another 12 months.
“America’s economy remains in a deep hole, and the negative effects are experienced disproportionately by lower-income workers and those who faced structural inequities prior to the pandemic,” Walsh, the Labor Department chief, said.