Demand for workers in the United States eased in February, a sign that the red-hot labor market continues to cool off somewhat.
There were 9.9 million job openings, compared with a revised 10.6 million on the last day of January, the Labor Department reported Tuesday in the Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, known as JOLTS.
A drop in open positions is a signal that the labor market is slowing down, but the report also showed that it remains healthy: Four million workers quit their jobs during the month, a slight increase relative to January, and the number of layoffs decreased slightly to 1.5 million.
There were 1.7 jobs open for every unemployed worker in February, compared with 1.9 in January, a measure the Federal Reserve has been paying close attention to as it looks to cool hiring, part of its effort to contain inflation.
Fed officials worry that a tight job market is contributing to inflation, as employers may feel pressure to raise wages to compete for workers, and then pass along price increases to consumers; in recent months the number of available openings has remained high in spite of high borrowing costs.
Policymakers at the central bank have raised interest rates from near zero to about 5 percent over the past year, aiming to make it costlier for companies to expand and consumers to spend. But the central bank also wants to avoid triggering widespread layoffs or causing lasting damage to the labor market.
One measure of inflation that is closely watched by the Federal Reserve slowed substantially in February. The Personal Consumption Expenditures Index cooled to 5 percent on an annual basis in February, down from 5.3 percent in January.
Despite high-profile rounds of layoffs in the tech sector, layoffs overall have been historically low in recent months — a sign that employers may be reluctant to part with workers hired during pandemic-era spikes.
The number of workers quitting their jobs voluntarily — a sign that they are confident they can find work elsewhere — rose slightly, to four million.
JOLTS is considered a lagging indicator, telling more about conditions in the recent past than offering information about what may come. On Friday, the Labor Department will release employment data for March. That data will offer a more up-to-date picture of the job market. Economists surveyed by Bloomberg expect that employers added about 240,000 jobs in March, a slight slowdown from February but still a pace of hiring that reflects a robust labor market.