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U.S. Added More Jobs Than Expected Last Month, But Still Not Enough

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The U.S. economy is shifting into a higher gear. As coronavirus infections came down last month, more help-wanted signs went up. U.S. employers added 379,000 jobs in February. That is more than twice as many as the month before. President Biden welcomed the news but warned the pandemic recession is far from over. And he continues to make the case for his $1.9 trillion rescue package, which is making its way through the Senate.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Without a rescue plan, these gains are going to slow. We can't afford one step forward and two steps backward. We need to beat the virus, provide a sense of relief and build an inclusive recovery.

SHAPIRO: And that bill could come to a vote in the Senate this weekend. NPR's Scott Horsley is with us now.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good afternoon.

SHAPIRO: So a better jobs report than expected. What does this say about the economy more broadly?

HORSLEY: Yeah, we saw a really widespread pickup in the pace of hiring after some slow months during the depths of winter. You know, factories added workers, so did retail stores. The biggest jump came in bars and restaurants, which have been a bellwether, rising and falling throughout the pandemic. As COVID cases dropped last month and restrictions on in-person businesses eased, bars and restaurants added 286,000 workers. The White House thinks some of these job gains were fueled by the $600 relief payments that went out at the beginning of January and helped give a lift to consumer spending. And the president wants to see more of that. His rescue package would deliver another $1,400 payment to most Americans.

SHAPIRO: So that's the administration's argument, but the perspective from congressional Republicans is that the rescue package is too expensive and that the economy does not need so much extra help. They note that the unemployment rate is down now to just 6.2%.

HORSLEY: Yeah, unemployment has come down a lot since last summer, when it peaked close to 15%. Some of that decline is people going back to work. But we've also had millions of people drop out of the workforce altogether. And if all those people were still being counted, the unemployment rate would be somewhere between 9- and 10%. Cecilia Rouse, who is the newly confirmed chair of the president's Council of Economic Advisers, says a lot of people are still struggling and need the help that the pandemic relief package would provide.

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CECILIA ROUSE: We know that 11 million workers will lose their unemployment benefits in the next nine days if it is not passed. And even though this job report is encouraging, we're in such a massive hole that it's still going to take months, if not years, if we don't, you know, continue to see improvement for us to get back to the employment levels that we were at even just a year ago.

HORSLEY: Certainly, one can argue, as Republicans have, that there are parts of this bill that don't have much to do with the pandemic. But it's hard to make the case that no additional help is necessary. You know, even with the jobs gains we saw last month, we are 9 1/2 million jobs shy of where we were before the pandemic.

SHAPIRO: So with that many people still out of work, explain why some employers are saying they're having a hard time finding enough workers. What's going on there?

HORSLEY: I heard that a lot this week from factory owners whose business is really picking up right now. Factories added 21,000 jobs last month, but there are also a lot of unfilled factory jobs around the country. Courtney Silver, who owns a precision machine shop in Concord, N.C., has been trying to hire four new workers and having a tough time at it. She knows some people can't work right now because they're busy looking after kids whose schools have closed. Others might be waiting to return to work until they can get vaccinated. Silver does say COVID-related absences have been tough on her and other businesses this year.

COURTNEY SILVER: If you get a call on a Friday night or a Saturday or a Sunday, hey, my wife has COVID, I'm going to be out for two weeks - it affects production in big ways. You need a lot of grace and mercy for the past year, that's for sure.

HORSLEY: She's had delays in deliveries. And we've seen hiccups like that all along the supply chain. Luckily, Silver says, her customers have been understanding because they're all in the same boat.

SHAPIRO: Just briefly, any insight into the stock market swings of the last few days?

HORSLEY: They have been swings. You know, investors aren't sure whether to be happy about good economic news or nervous that it's too good to last. And we've seen that playing out for a couple of weeks now. The market ended up today. The Dow gained 572 points or a little less than 2%.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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