The US economy saw better-than-expected hiring in February as businesses battered by the Covid-19 pandemic began recruiting employees again, while Congress moved forward with President Joe Biden's massive stimulus proposal despite Republican opposition.
Payrolls jumped by 379,000 last month, which was almost double expectations and pushed the unemployment rate down slightly to 6.2 percent, the Labour Department reported on Friday.
The vast majority of the gains were in the leisure and hospitality sector, including the bars and restaurants that were the first to close as business restrictions to stop Covid-19 began nearly a year ago, a sign that the world's largest economy may finally be healing.
Yet the economy was still short 9.5 million jobs compared to February 2020 before the pandemic began, the report said, and White House Chief of Staff Ronald Klain said the data underscore the need for lawmakers to approve Biden's plan for nearly US$1.9 trillion in aid.
"If you think today's jobs report is 'good enough,' then know that at this pace (+379,000 jobs/month), it would take until April 2023 to get back to where we were in February 2020," he said on Twitter.
Biden's proposal would be the third major stimulus package to help the United States weather the Covid-19 crisis, and includes a range of measures such as expanded aid for small businesses and the unemployed as well as stimulus checks for Americans.
However, the Republican opposition has argued the proposal is excessive, and it faces a narrow path to enactment in the Senate, where lawmakers will on Friday begin the process of offering amendments to the bill in a debate that could stretch into Saturday.
Unemployment in the United States was at a record low before the pandemic began but spiked to 14.7 percent last April after the restrictions were imposed.
Joblessness has declined in the months since, but at an increasingly slow pace, and economists viewed the December and January data as indicating a stall in the employment recovery.
The sentiment with the February report was much more upbeat, with Gregory Daco of Oxford Economics calling it "an early blossom for employment."
But outside the strong hiring among restaurants and bars, other sectors saw smaller gains, with temporary health services adding 53,000 jobs and health care and social assistance adding 46,000.
"The core story here is that the re-opening of services will be the dominant factor in the payroll numbers over the next few months," said Ian Shepherdson of Pantheon Macroeconomics, predicting March could see a payroll increase of one million jobs. (AFP)