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The nation's unemployment rate leapt to 7.3 percent in February, the highest level since the recession began and the worst in 61/2 years, the government said Friday.

The new rate, up from 7.1 percent in January and the highest since July 1985, came despite separate data showing employers expanded their payrolls by a more-than-expected 164,000 jobs.The two statistics are derived from separate Labor Department surveys and can sometimes conflict. The unemployment rate comes from a survey of American households, while the payroll data is culled from a survey of businesses.

Taken together, the two surveys "mean the recession is probably over," said economist Bruce Steinberg of Merrill Lynch.

"The key thing here is not that the unemployment rate went up, it's that employment is finally growing again," he said. "That's not to say we're in a strong recovery. There's a high level of unemployment and a low level of consumer confidence. There's every reason to believe this will be one of the weakest recoveries from a recession we've ever had."

President Bush's campaign spokeswoman, Torie Clarke, said the new data on unemployment "makes things very tough" for the campaign.

"Most importantly, it makes things tough for the unemployed. Congress should get off its duff" and pass Bush's economic package, Clarke said in Oklahoma City, where Bush was campaigning.

The increase in non-farm payroll jobs was the strongest since May 1990. But the good news was somewhat blunted by a downward revision of the January payroll number. The department said employers recorded 149,000 layoffs, instead of the previously reported 91,000.

In another positive sign, the department said the average workweek for non-farm, non-supervisory workers increased sharply, by 0.4 hours to 34.7 hours following a decline of 0.2 hours in January.


(Additional information)

Utah's jobless rate falls

Utah's unemployment rate fell to 4.7 percent in February, down from a revised January figure of 4.9 percent, according to Lecia Parks Langston, chief economist for the Utah Department of Employment Security. With the decline, Utah's unemployment rate continues to be well below the national average of 7.3 percent. Fewer new entrants and re-entrants to Utah's labor force helped push the unemployment figure down in February, Langston said. About 38,600 Utahns were out of work in February, 2,700 more than in February 1991, but 1,400 fewer than in January 1992.