Job growth came to a near halt in February after a struggling start to the new year. Nonfarm payrolls increased by just 20,000 even as the unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent.
February was the worst month for job creation since September 2017, offset somewhat by a solid increase in wages.
The month fell short of the expectations of 180,000 from economists surveyed by Dow Jones. The unemployment rate had been projected at 3.9 percent from January’s 4 percent.
The jobless rate fell in part because of the vagaries the Labor Department uses to calculate the headline rate.
A more encompassing unemployment rate that counts discouraged workers as well as those holding jobs part time for economic reasons, often called the “real” unemployment rate, plunged to 7.3 percent in February from 8.1 percent in January. Those employed part time for economic reasons fell by 837,000 to 4.3 million while those completing temporary jobs fell by 225,000. The Labor Department office said was a consequence of the government shutdown that ended in late February.
There was good news in the report: Average hourly earnings increased by 3.4 percent on year over year, easily the best of the economic recovery that began nearly 10 years ago. That compares with a 1.5 percent increase in the consumer price index for all urban consumers from January 2018 to January 2019.
Economists generally expect very little growth in the first quarter as the U.S. recovers from a lackluster holiday shopping season and concerns persist about a global slowdown that is finding its way into the domestic economy.
Getting a true picture of the economy in the first quarter has been difficult, however, due to issues emanating from the government shutdown that ended in late January. Many government reports have been delayed, so economists and Wall Street have been using the nonfarm payrolls count, which was not disrupted by the shutdown, as a barometer for growth.