Saturday, March 6, 2004

Feb. unemployment rate stuck at 5.6%

By Jeannine Aversa
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON - The nation's payrolls grew by just 21,000 in February and left the unemployment rate stuck at 5.6 percent, just as President Bush revved up a re-election campaign that is counting heavily on a revived economy.

The jobs snapshot released Friday by the Labor Department showed a continuation of slow employment growth. The net gain in "nonfarm" payrolls - government and private employers - fell well short of the 125,000 jobs that economists had been forecasting.

What little growth there was came from the government. Private-sector employment was flat.

"This remains a jobless recovery, pure and simple," chief economist David Rosenberg of Merrill Lynch said. "Meaningful job creation remains alarmingly elusive."

The report also showed that job creation in December and January was weaker than previously thought. Total payrolls in December grew by just 8,000 and were up by 97,000 in January, according to revised figures.

"People are having difficulty finding a job because companies are still very cautious in taking on new employees," said Lynn Reaser, chief economist at Banc of America Capital Management. "The hiring doors aren't fully opened."

The overall seasonally adjusted civilian unemployment rate stayed at 5.6 percent in February as 392,000 people left the civilian work force for any number of reasons.

The weak job creation, however, comes even as the economy has been growing at a healthy rate. Productivity gains have allowed companies to produce more with fewer people, economists say.

The economy, after struggling mightily to get back on its feet after the jolt of the 2001 recession and terrorist attacks, finally staged a material rebound in the second half of last year. But for out-of-work Americans, it hasn't felt like better economic times.

There were some 8.2 million people unemployed in February, with the average duration of 20.3 weeks without work. That marked the highest average duration of joblessness in over 20 years.

In February, manufacturers lost jobs for the 43rd month in a row. Factories cut 3,000 positions last month, but that marked a slower pace than the 13,000 cut in January.

Construction companies lost 24,000 jobs in February as bad winter weather in some parts of the country delayed projects.

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