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U.S. Restaurants Lead February Job Gains as States Ease Restrictions

The food service industry gained 286,000 jobs, but there are still over 2 million fewer people working in restaurants now compared with pre-pandemic highs

Two groups of people eat and drink while sitting at tables set up outside on the street.
Patrons dining outside in Chinatown
Gary He/Eater

As more people around the country receive COVID-19 vaccinations and as some states reduce capacity restrictions for indoor dining, the hospitality industry is beginning to show signs of life again.

Bars and restaurants gained 286,000 jobs nationwide in February, following three straight months of losses or tepid growth, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported in its monthly employment survey this morning. Those increases reflected the bulk of the 379,000 jobs that employers added throughout the U.S. economy last month.

The unemployment rate for food service workers dropped to 12.2 percent. That’s down from a winter high of 16.1 percent, but it’s still roughly double the national jobless rate, and there are over 2 million fewer people working in the restaurant industry now compared with pre-pandemic highs.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced in late January that he’d be re-opening indoor dining in the five boroughs at limited capacity the following month, a move that likely added to the nationwide jobs increase.

Public health officials, however, are cautioning states against lifting restrictions prematurely. “If things open up, if we’re not really cautious,” the country could see a post-spring break surge with “much more disease” and “much more death,” Rochelle Walensky, head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, told NPR this week.

New York City restaurants employed over 144,000 fewer workers late last year than before the pandemic, according to December data released in January. The state is expected to release updated local numbers later this month.

Unemployment in the larger economy held steady at 6.2 percent, while the workforce was nearly 8.5 million people lower than last February, before COVID-19 gripped the country. The ranks of the long-term unemployed — those without a job for over half a year — increased by 125,000 to 4.15 million, nearly quadruple the rate it was this time last year. Just the same, the number of people working part-time for economic reasons crept upward by 134,000 to over 6 million, up from 4.4 million earlier in 2020.

Many of those individuals likely count themselves among the millions of hospitality professionals who remain out of a job — or working with fewer shifts — and who are depending on Congress to extend enhanced unemployment benefits before they expire in mid-March.

Asian folks experienced the biggest drop in unemployment, falling to 5.1 percent, the lowest of any group. Rates for other groups showed “little or no change,” per the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Still, joblessness hovered at particularly high levels among Black people; their rate actually rose by 0.7 percent to 9.9 percent. All told, there were 85,000 fewer Black men working in February than in the previous month, and 49,000 fewer employed Black women.

Latinx people had a jobless rate of 8.5 percent in February, while the rate for white people was 5.6 percent.

Congress is currently debating the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill; Democrats supporting the measure aim to pass it by March 14, before unemployment aid programs lapse. The Wall Street Journal reports that Senate Democrats struck an agreement on Friday to keep enhanced jobless benefits at $300 per week, down from the $400 level that House Democrats sought, or half of the $600 weekly checks that Americans received last spring as part of the first stimulus package.