WASHINGTON – The US economy shed fewer jobs than expected in February and the unemployment rate held at 9.7% despite severe winter storms, a government report said Friday, suggesting the labor market is stabilizing.
The Labor Department said that nonfarm payrolls fell by 36,000, surprising most analysts who projected 67,000 job losses because of massive snow storms that crippled the country's northeastern region.
January job losses were revised higher to 26,000, from an initial estimate of 20,000, though the overall payrolls trend pointed to gradual stabilization in the labor market.
The department said "it is not possible to quantify precisely the net impact of the winter storms" on the payrolls, but some analysts speculated that without the weather effect, jobs would have been created.
"This report is consistent with an economy that would not have lost jobs in the month, had it not been for the weather," said Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
"With more normal conditions, it is likely that the economy would have added a small number of jobs in the month."
Ian Shepherdson of High Frequency Economics said the weather impact "was surely not negligible so we assume payrolls ex-weather would have been positive."
Most economists had expected the unemployment rate to rise to 9.8% from 9.7% in January. The rate had peaked at 10.2% in October.
The total number of unemployed was essentially unchanged at 14.9 million.
Following the report, President Barack Obama vowed to press on with measures to reduce unemployment.
"Even though it's better than expected, it's more than we should tolerate," he said.
"Far too many Americans remain out of work, far too many families are still struggling in these difficult economic times," he said.
"That's why I'm not going to rest and my administration is not going to rest in our efforts to help people who are looking to find a job to help business owners who want to expand, feel comfortable, hiring again," he said.
Christina Romer, the chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, urged Congress to pass additional measures to promote job creation as well as continue to support those struggling with unemployment.
On Thursday the House of Representatives passed a 15-billion-dollar measure to help reduce unemployment, after a similar move by the Senate.
The monthly labor market report, seen as a key indicator of economic momentum, underscored the persistent woes in the labor market, even after the economy emerged from the worst recession in decades in mid-2009.
Since the recession started in December 2007, the economy has shed 8.4 million jobs.
The Federal Reserve, the White House and most economists have warned that high unemployment would continue as the world's largest economy slowly recovers.
"Today’s employment report further highlights that there is a jobless recovery underway in America," said Jason Schenker of Prestige Economics.
"While leading economic indicators... continue to point towards growth and the Fed has acknowledged the return of a 'nascent recovery,' the US jobs market remains fundamentally weak," he said.
The economy expanded at a strong 5.9% pace in the 2009 fourth quarter, following a 2.2% rise in the third quarter that snapped a year of contraction.
The Labor Department report said the number of long-term unemployed, those jobless for at least 27 weeks, was 6.1 million in February, roughly holding steady since December and accounting for 40 percent of the unemployed.
The number of people working "involuntary" part time for economic reasons rose to 8.8 million from 8.3 million, due to cuts in work hours or the inability to find a full-time job.
The report noted that the government hired 15,000 temporary workers for the 2010 census.