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Unemployment rate unchanged as employers shed 36K more jobs

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By Chritopher S. Rugaber

WASHINGTON (AP) — The unemployment rate held at 9.7 percent in February as employers shed 36,000 jobs, fewer than expected. The figures suggested the job market is slowly healing but that significant hiring has yet to occur.

The Labor Department said it wouldn't quantify how the snowstorms that hammered the East Coast last month affected job losses. Some data in the report signaled the storms didn't reduce payrolls as much as had been feared.

Economists had estimated that the storms could inflate job losses by 100,000 or more. That would mean the economy generated a net gain in jobs last month, excluding the impact of the snow, for only the second time since the recession began in December 2007.

The department revised its estimate of job losses for January from 20,000 to 26,000.

Hiring for the 2010 Census accounted for 15,000 jobs, the department said. The government expects to hire 1 million temporary census workers this year.

Many economists predicted the snowstorms would artificially inflate job losses. The storms occurred in the week that the government surveys businesses about their payrolls. Employees who couldn't make it to work and weren't paid aren't included on those payrolls.

But many industries that economists thought might be hardest hit — construction, retail, and hotels and restaurants — didn't seem to be heavily affected. The construction industry lost 64,000 jobs, compared with an average of about 40,000 in the previous three months. Retail employment was flat and the leisure and hospitality industry posted a net gain of 7,000 jobs, the first increase since September.

The unemployment rate, which hasn't risen since October, could be bottoming out. Still, 14.9 million Americans are unemployed, nearly double the total when the recession began, and the economy has shed 8.4 million jobs during that time.

Including people who have given up on their job searches or are working part-time but would prefer full-time work, the so-called "underemployment" rate rose to 16.8 percent from 16.5 percent last month. That reflects a jump in the number of involuntary part-time workers. The figure is below October's all-time high of 17.4 percent.

On Thursday, the House passed legislation giving companies that hire the jobless a temporary payroll tax break. Economists doubt, though, that it'll create many jobs. President Barack Obama and the Democratic Party are under pressure to address the jobs crisis in a congressional election year.

One encouraging sign in the report: The number of long-term unemployed — those out of work for six months or more — fell for the first time since November 2008, to 6.1 million from 6.3 million. Still, about 40 percent of the unemployed have been out of work six months or longer.

The average work week dropped to 33.8 hours from 33.9 the previous month. That's a negative sign: Employers are expected to increase the hours for their current employees before hiring new workers. Still, that drop could be due to the weather. The department said more than 5 million people worked fewer hours last month because of the snow.

Job losses have moderated sharply in the past year. The economy shed an average of about 700,000 jobs in the first three months of 2009.

New hiring is desperately needed after the worst recession since the 1930s. The economy grew at a 5.9 percent rate in the October-December quarter last year, the fastest pace in six years. But most economists expect the pace of growth to slow to about 3 percent in the current quarter, which won't be fast enough to quickly bring down the jobless rate.

The Labor Department said employers cut 36,000 jobs, below analysts' expectations of 50,000. Analysts expected the jobless rate to rise to 9.8 percent.