WASHINGTON (AP) — The unemployment rate held at 9.7 percent in February as employers shed fewer jobs than expected, evidence that the job market may be slowly healing.
The Labor Department said employers cut 36,000 jobs, below analysts' expectations of 50,000. Analysts expected the jobless rate to rise to 9.8 percent.
The severe snowstorms that hammered the East Coast last month may have affected job losses, the department said, but it wouldn't quantify the impact. Other data in the report signaled the storms didn't have as much impact as feared.
Economists estimated before the report that the storms could inflate job losses by 100,000 or more. That would mean the economy generated a net gain in jobs last month, excluding the impact of the snow, for only the second time since the recession began in December 2007.
The department revised its estimate of job losses for January from 20,000 to 26,000, but said job cuts were fewer in December than originally estimated — 109,000 rather than 150,000.
Hiring for the 2010 Census accounted for 15,000 jobs, the department said. The government anticipates hiring 1 million temporary census workers this year.
Many economists anticipated that the snowstorms would artificially inflate job losses because the snowstorms occurred in the same week that the government surveys businesses about their payrolls. Employees who couldn't make it to work and weren't paid aren't included on those payrolls.
But many industries that economists thought might be hardest hit — construction, retail, and hotels and restaurants — didn't seem to be heavily affected. The construction indusrty lost 64,000 jobs, compared to an average of about 40,000 in the previous three months. Retail employment was flat and the leisure and hospitality industy posted a net gain of 7,000 jobs, the first increase since September.
The unemployment rate, which hasn't risen since October, could be bottoming out. Still, 14.9 million Americans are unemployed, nearly double the total when the recession began, and the economy has shed 8.4 million jobs during that time.
The economy grew at a 5.9 percent rate in the October-December quarter last year, the fastest pace in six years. But most economists expect the pace of growth to slow to about 3 percent in the current quarter, which won't be fast enough to quickly bring down the jobless rate.