WASHINGTON (CN) – Unemployment held at 9.7 percent in February, despite the loss of 36,000 jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. But Commissioner Keith Hall said last month’s severe storms in the Northeast could be artificially inflating the job-loss numbers. “A lot of the industries have stopped losing jobs,” he said.
“We cannot say how much the February payroll employment was affected by the severe weather,” Hall told the Joint Economic Committee.
But in an interview after the hearing, Hall noted that winter storms sent 1 million employees home during the survey period. If those workers weren’t paid during that pay period, they were falsely recorded as having lost their jobs, Hall said.
He added that the 9.7 percent unemployment estimate was less likely to be distorted by the storm.
The continued losses bring the number of jobs lost since the start of the recession to 8.36 million, leaving nearly 15 million unemployed.
Bucking the trend were the 15,000 census workers hired in February.
Democrats contrasted the 36,000 job losses with the roughly 780,000 jobs lost the month that President Obama took office, while Republicans said today’s numbers fell short of last year’s White House prediction that unemployment would not top 8 percent if the stimulus bill passed.
“The employment rate remained unchanged,” Rep. Kevin Brady (R-Texas) said. “It’s not moving down as was promised by the passage of the first stimulus.” He said the government should “get out of the way,” instead of passing stimulus bills.
Rep. Michael Burgess, also a Texas Republican, chimed in. “I don’t want to belabor the point, but we did pass a $787 billion stimulus package a year ago,” he said.
Democrats responded that last year’s inaccurate estimates do not mean the stimulus efforts aren’t spurring job growth and the economy.
“Nobody’s trying to paint a rosy picture, but we refuse to look at the difference between January of 2009 and January of 2010 and say that’s not significant,” Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said. “The fact is that we are seeing some progress.”
The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that the $787 billion stimulus package ended up costing $862 billion, but with just a quarter paid out, has spurred as many as 2 million jobs.
Hall said the storms likely contributed to a drop in hours from 33.9 hours per week to 33.8 hours, but employee productivity has otherwise grown steadily by more than 7 percent during the fourth quarter of last year. This increase is a leading indicator of job growth, he said, because employers typically make sure their current employees are working at high capacity before hiring again.
Unemployment is one of the toughest challenges facing Democrats. The House passed a $35 billion stimulus bill on Thursday to promote job growth and construction.
Hall said job losses are narrowing, with the construction sector losing 64,000 jobs last month, and local governments losing 31,000.
The February unemployment rate was 8.8 percent for whites and 12.4 percent for Hispanics. Blacks were the most afflicted, with 15.8 percent unemployed.
Veterans had an overall unemployment rate that, at 9.5 percent, was slightly lower than the national average, but the rate jumped to 12.5 percent for veterans sent to Iraq and Afghanistan within the last decade.
Of men, 10 percent were unemployed compared to 8 percent of women.
The number of people unemployed for six months or longer doubled over the past year, reaching 6.3 million in February. Hall characterized this as “a very high number,” but the bureau maintained that the doubling of long-term unemployed is not an unusual symptom of recessions.
The unemployment rate for those without a high-school diploma grew 0.4 percentage points to hit 15.6 percent in February. High-school graduates without a college degree saw their unemployment grow by the same margin to hit 10.5 percent. Unemployment fell by half a percentage point to 8 percent for workers with some college experience. Those with a college degree remained mostly stable, at 5 percent unemployment.