U.S. unemployment rate falls in February, but ticks up for Black women

U.S. unemployment rate falls in February, but ticks up for Black women

A woman seeking employment attends the 25th annual Central Florida Employment Council Job Fair at the Central Florida Fairgrounds.
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The U.S. unemployment rate overall fell in February, but rose for Black women, who have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic.

The February jobs report showed stronger-than-expected jobs growth, with nonfarm payrolls rising by 678,000, the Labor Department reported Friday. The overall unemployment fell to 3.8% last month from 4% in January.

“In the aggregate, it’s a really positive report, but there are still some troubling signs,” said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College and president of the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

The unemployment rate for Black women ticked up to 6.1% in February from 5.8% the month prior. Black women were the only race and gender group to see a slight uptick in the unemployment rate.

Black women’s labor force participation rate also dipped last month by 0.2 percentage points. The labor force participation rate is an important metric used by economists to gauge engagement with and optimism in the labor market.

Nearly a third of all Black women who work in the U.S. are in the health-care and social services sector, which has had a slower rebound in labor recovery during the pandemic, according to Holder.

Covid’s disruption of the child-care industry has also sidelined female workers, economists told CNBC

In February, Black male workers saw the greatest percentage-point decrease in the unemployment rate out of the demographic cohorts, from 7.1% in January to 6.4% last month. The labor force participation rate of Black men also rose.

Black men in the U.S. are overrepresented in transportation and warehouse industries, which have expanded during the pandemic as e-commerce boomed, Holder noted.

Still, the unemployment rate for Black Americans was 6.6% in February, exactly double that of white Americans.

“The white unemployment rate is now lower than the Black unemployment rate has ever been,” said Elise Gould, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

The disparity points to an uneven labor market recovery during the pandemic, said Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research.

Labor segmentation — women of color are more likely to hold precarious jobs — and discrimination are among the factors contributing to gaps in labor market outcomes along race and gender lines, according to Mason.

“We need to pay attention to this so that we don’t leave people behind in the recovery or turn away from the work that still needs to happen in order to make sure that everyone is able to recover, especially those who were disproportionately impacted by job and income losses during the pandemic,” Mason said.

–CNBC’s Crystal Mercedes contributed to this report.

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