By Nathalie Voit

Widespread job gains in February helped bring the unemployment rate nearer to pre-pandemic levels, the Labor Department said in its jobs report released March 4

Total nonfarm payrolls for the month grew by 678,000, and the unemployment rate fell to 3.8% from 4.0% in January, the department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported on Friday. The employment situation easily beat Wall Street estimates of 440,000 jobs and a 3.9% unemployment rate, according to CNBC.

Job gains were most pronounced in service-based industries like leisure & hospitality, which added 179,000 jobs for the month. Professional and business services followed suit, adding 95,000 jobs in February. Employment in health care increased by 64,000, followed by gains in construction, which saw 60,000 available openings filled.

The leisure & hospitality industry was prepared to make substantial gains since it suffered the most when federally-mandated restrictions and lockdowns were implemented to curb the spread of COVID-19. The unemployment rate for the sector slid to 6.6% as job growth in bars and restaurants (+124,000) and in accommodation (+28,000) helped bring the sector closer to its 5.7% February 2020 rate. However, the industry is still short of 1.5 million workers, or 9.0% of its workforce, the DOL said.

Wages in February remained static, rising by just 1 cent an hour, or 0.03%, according to the report. In contrast, Wall Street had expected wages to rise by 0.05%, CNBC said. Wage growth for the year has risen at a healthy 5.13%, the DOL said. However, the gains have not been enough to keep up with inflation, which is up by 7.5% year-over-year, according to the department’s latest Consumer Price Index report.

The total number of unemployed fell to 6.3 million, bringing the labor market closer to its pre-pandemic self. For reference, the total number of unemployed before the pandemic was 5.7 million and the unemployment rate was 3.5%, the department said.

“This report indicates that the job market is healthy and resilient to the ebbs and flows of the pandemic,” said senior economist for job placement service Glassdoor Daniel Zhao, according to CNBC. “We’ve seen that job gains have been over 400,000 for 10 months in a row.”

“We saw broad-based gains in every sector – in trucking, warehousing, construction, leisure and hospitality, even in nursing homes,” said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “Ninety percent of the jobs lost in March and April of 2020 have been recovered.”