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A meager gain in US jobs last month highlights virus’ damage

ap photo Construction workers talk at a USA Properties Fund site, Tuesday in Simi Valley, Calif. Hiring has weakened for six straight months. Nearly 10 million jobs remain lost since the coronavirus struck.

WASHINGTON — America’s employers barely added jobs last month, underscoring the viral pandemic’s ongoing grip on the economy and likely adding momentum to the Biden administration’s push for a bold rescue aid package.

The increase of just 49,000 positions in January made scarcely any dent in the nearly 10 million jobs that remain lost since the virus intensified nearly a year ago. The tepid increase followed a decline of 227,000 jobs in December, the first loss since April.

The unemployment rate fell sharply in January from 6.7 percent to 6.3 percent, the Labor Department said Friday. Most of the drop in unemployment occurred because some people out of work found jobs, but others stopped looking for work and were no longer counted as unemployed.

Even last month’s small job gain benefited from a technical adjustment to the government’s data. And without an increase of 80,000 temporary jobs, the economy would have posted a net loss for January.

“What you have is a lousy report that shows a stalling recovery,” said Nela Richardson, chief economist at the payroll processor ADP.

Soaring new virus infections in late fall had forced tighter business restrictions in California, New York, Virginia and other states, thereby reducing the need for workers. Consumers have also been less willing to dine out, travel or go to concert halls and other venues as the pandemic has persisted. Some business closures, notably in California, have since been eased or lifted, but in many cases too late to affect last month’s jobs data.

President Joe Biden on Friday pointed to the discouraging jobs report as evidence that much more government aid for the economy is needed, and he said he would continue to push his $1.9 trillion plan through Congress — if necessary, without Republican support. The proposal includes $160 billion to support vaccination efforts.

“There’s simply nothing more important than getting the resources we need to vaccinate people as soon and as quickly as possible,” Biden said, echoing economists who have long argued that controlling the pandemic was a prerequisite for any sustained revival of the economy.

Biden’s proposal would also provide $1,400 checks for most U.S. individuals and a $400 weekly unemployment payment on top of state benefits. The package would also extend two federal jobless aid programs, from mid-March through September.

Economists are increasingly hopeful that as vaccinations reach a critical mass in the coming months and the government provides further stimulus, the economy and job market will strengthen much faster than after previous recessions. Bank of America estimates that growth could reach 6 percent this year, which would be the fastest since 1984.

“The tunnel we’re in does have a light,” Richardson said. “It’s later this year when the U.S. economy is reopened, and after widespread inoculation and maybe stimulus. This is not the end of the story by any means. But it does show the recovery could use more support.”

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