February’s job gains were likely once more chilled by bad winter weather, and even March’s employment report could be slushy.
Economists expect to see 150,000 nonfarm payrolls added in February, when the government data is released Friday at 8:30 a.m. ET.
They are also watching to see if January’s unemployment rate of 6.6 percent falls to 6.5 percent, a level the Fed set as a threshold where it could consider raising short-term rates. Fed officials maintain that level is not a trigger but it will be watched nonetheless since the Fed has not dropped the language.
Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s Economy.com, said he expects 130,000 jobs for February, and said the weakness could continue in March.
“One tell with regard to weather will be hours worked per week. It’ been very depressed at 34.4 hours,” he said. “If it stays there or goes lower, that’s a pretty good sign that weather is playing a role. There’s a chance that unemployment falls to 6.5 percent. Then the Fed will have to make a change to forward guidance.”
He said the ripple effect from weather is not just the immediate business shutdowns, but also the ripple effect of lost wages.
(Read more: What’s really holding back job creation)
While February jobs growth is expected to be soft, it is not expected to be as weak as the 113,000 jobs added in January or the 75,000 in December.
Diane Swonk, chief economist at Mesirow Financial, expects to see a total of 185,000 payrolls. She credits her more optimistic expectation on the fact that February is usually a better month than most for hiring.
“February is typically a very strong month. It’s when people start to hire after the drudgery of January. It’s when you start to get a strong three to four month upswing,” she said, adding there are some anecdotal signs for improvement such as a pickup in travel. “It’s also the month we’re going to see if the 1.2 million that lost their extensions for unemployment … quit or did they find something.”
Swonk said on a seasonally adjusted basis February job growth over a dozen years has been a little over 200,000, and an average 599,700 if not adjusted.
The labor-related data has also been mixed but Thursday’s weekly jobless claims report was a positive surprise. Weekly unemployment claims fell to 323,000 during the week ending March 1, down 26,000 and more than 12,000 below consensus.
(Read more: US claims fall, but workers grow less productive)
Economists said the report points to a better outlook for continuing claims since it seemed to contain no special factors. The week earlier’s report was revised up to 349,000, and the Labor Department blamed the fluctuation on winter storms.
Economists have been watching a mixed bag of economic data, hoping to see if the spotty trend is due to an unusually harsh winter with lots of storms, or something else.
ADP private sector payrolls totaled 139,000 for February, a number that has been higher than the government nonfarm payrolls by an average 14,000 for the last six months. Within that report, most of the jobs—120,000—were service sector. Construction totaled 14,000 but manufacturing added just 1,000.
Zandi said there’s a chance there’s more at work than just bad weather. One area he is watching is housing.
“I think there’s a transition in the housing market from investors to first-time buyers, and that isn’t going smoothly,” he said, adding he hopes to see improvement in the spring buying season. “That’s a key risk to my optimism.”
—By CNBC’s Patti Domm. Follow her on Twitter @pattidomm.