President Joe Biden celebrated a massive rebound in US jobs Friday as a sign of hope "at long last" that the end of the pandemic is within sight, with businesses reopening nationwide and vaccine access quickly opening up.
New Labor Department data showing the economy regained 916,000 jobs in March come as a boon to millions of Americans facing financial ruin -- but also lay bare the deep scars left by more than a year of shutdowns and restrictions due to Covid-19.
"We still have a long way to go to get our economy back on track after the worst economic and job crisis in nearly a century," the president said in a televised address.
"But my message to the American people is this: Help is here. Opportunity is coming. And at long last, there's hope for so many families."
The increase in jobs was the biggest since August, with nearly a third of the gains in the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector, the Labor Department reported.
The rise in hiring pushed the unemployment rate down to 6.0 percent from 6.2 percent in February.
However, even as the economy begins to recover from the Covid-19 shutdowns, employment is still 8.4 million jobs lower than the pre-pandemic peak, the report said.
The gain in nonfarm payrolls, which far exceeded the consensus estimate among economists, reflects the accelerating recovery as vaccinations become more widely available, as well as the injection of more government stimulus which sent cash to most households and expanded support to businesses.
And with upward revisions to hiring in the first two months of 2021, employment in January and February combined was 156,000 higher than previously reported, the report said.
Speaking from the White House, Biden said the gains in February and March mean the United States "has seen more new jobs created in the first two months in any administration in history."
While acknowledging the work still to be done, he credited a massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan he unveiled earlier this week, which he said would create 19 million jobs over eight years while restoring US roads, bridges, ports and broadband internet.
- White women big winners -
The Labor Department report showed hiring was widespread in manufacturing, construction and education, but leisure and hospitality which bore the brunt of the shutdowns topped the list, regaining 280,000 -- 176,000 of those in restaurants and bars.
Labor Secretary Marty Walsh credited "good economic policy but also a competent vaccination plan."
And, "A lot more people are getting more confident in coming back into the workforce," Walsh said on Fox Business.
Labor economist Diane Swonk of Grant Thornton one of the few who accurately predicted the blockbuster report, pointed to "the lifting of restrictions on indoor venues and a surge in spring break travel."
But the figures showed the white women were the biggest winners last month, with nearly half a million returning to work.
"Young mothers who have little to no access to child care returned en masse to the labor force as schools reopened," Swonk said.
- Remaining scars -
But the data show lasting damage from the pandemic: Black unemployment remains little changed at 9.6 percent, and average hourly earnings fell by four cents to $29.96, reflecting rehiring of lower wage workers who bring down the average.
In addition, there are nearly six million more workers now than before the pandemic who either are working part time because they cannot find a full time position, or are on the sidelines because they have not been able to find work, the report said.
With all of those workers included the unemployment rate is 10.7 percent, compared to 7.0 percent in February 2020.
Robert Frick of Navy Federal Credit Union said the data offered "clues of problems we'll face in the future... foreshadowing that moving millions of Americans back into the labor force will be an issue in the drive to return to pre-pandemic employment levels."
But Nancy Vanden Houten of Oxford Economics predicted good times ahead, saying the economy "is poised for an impressive run in the coming months as the combination of expanding vaccine distribution and generous fiscal stimulus leads to a hiring spurt."
Oxford is predicting a gain of 7.5 million jobs in 2021 with the unemployment rate falling to 4.3 percent.