March unemployment rate nears prepandemic levels, Black workers see sharp improvement

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A ‘We’re Hiring!’ sign is displayed at a Starbucks
Mario Tama | Getty Images News | Getty Images

The March jobs report showed unemployment rates near pre-Covid levels across racial lines, with sharp improvements for Black workers who have been hardest hit by the pandemic.

The U.S. unemployment rate overall dipped to 3.6% in March, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday. Nonfarm payrolls also added 431,000 jobs last month, slightly fewer than expected by economists.

Every demographic group tracked by the bureau, broken down by race or ethnicity and gender, saw its unemployment rate hold steady or fall in March.

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The unemployment rate for each racial or ethnic group was within striking distance of or slightly below where it stood in February 2020.

U.S. unemployment rates by race and ethnicity

February 2020 March 2021 February 2022 March 2022
White 3.0% 5.3% 3.3% 3.2%
Black 6.0% 9.5% 6.6% 6.2%
Asian 2.4% 5.9% 3.1% 2.8%
Hispanic or Latino 4.4% 7.7% 4.4% 4.2%

Black workers saw the greatest percentage-point drop in unemployment rates, falling from 6.6% in February to 6.2% in March.

“Those series tend to be volatile, so you have to kind of look at it over a longer period of time. In the last three months, there has been a consistent decline in the Black unemployment rate, and the labor force participation rate has been fairly stable,” said Valerie Wilson, director of the Economic Policy Institute’s program on race, ethnicity and the economy.

“That does point to things moving in the right direction,” Wilson added.

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When broken down by gender for workers 20 and older, the Black male unemployment rate fell from 6.4% to 5.6% in March and the Black female unemployment rate dropped from 6.1% to 5.5% last month.

That suggests the unemployment rate for Black Americans above 20 years of age could be better than the headline number, according to Wilson. The unemployment rate for Black workers between 16 to 19 years old was 22.9% in March.

Notably, jobs growth continued in March in the retail trade industry, said Nicole Mason, president and CEO of the Institute for Women’s Policy Research. The sector added 49,000 jobs last month. Retail trade employment is 278,000 payrolls above its level in February 2020. Women are heavily concentrated in the retail industry, Mason pointed out.

“Even though the unemployment rate for Black women and Latino women and people of color are still higher than the national average, it’s half the rate that it was at the beginning of the pandemic. So that’s good news,” she said.

March’s solid jobs report across the board could give the Federal Reserve confidence to continue its rate hike cycle as it works to address inflation, according to Wilson.

“Another strong jobs report like the one we had today and the fact that, for a lot of groups, you do see the unemployment rate much closer to … where it was before the pandemic, that probably adds fuel to the idea that this is a time for them to raise rates,” Wilson said.

–CNBC’s Crystal Mercedes contributed to this report.

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