Surveys: Small business hiring slows in February

NEW YORK (AP) — Small businesses hired fewer workers in February, according to two monthly surveys. The drop in hiring is a sign that owners are still uncertain about how well their companies will do this year.

Payroll company ADP said Wednesday that small businesses added 77,000 jobs last month, down from 115,000 in January. The number of new jobs had spurted higher in January from December's 25,000. Owners were likely catching up after putting hiring on hold while they waited for the outcome of tax and budget negotiations in Congress. ADP compiles its figures from payroll data submitted by its small business clients, companies with up to 49 workers.

Software maker Intuit said Tuesday that small businesses created 15,000 new jobs, down from 20,000 in January and matching December's level.

Surveys of small business owners have shown that they're holding back hiring as they're unsure about their prospects for making more money this year. A year-end survey by the National Small Business Association, a trade group, showed a sharp drop in the number of owners who believed there would be growth opportunities for their companies in 2013 — 38 percent versus 47 percent a year earlier.

Economists think the U.S. recovery is picking up. But the automatic government spending cuts, which kicked in this month, could crimp growth if they aren't reversed.

Small businesses account for 99.9 percent of U.S. companies, and employ about half the country's work force.

Intuit, which compiles its numbers from data posted online by its small business customers, had some positive signs in its report. Workers at small businesses earned an average 0.4 percent, or $12, more in February than the previous month, when their pay fell an average $6. They also worked more — their average monthly hours rose by 12 minutes, compared to a drop of nearly an hour in January.

But the survey also showed that owners have reason to be uneasy. Revenue at small businesses fell 0.6 percent in January after falling 0.4 percent in December. Small retailers had the largest decline in January, 1.3 percent.

Susan Woodward, an economist who analyzes the numbers for Intuit, said small business revenue was recovering from the recession until early 2012, and then began to fall. The smallest declines have come in the real estate and construction industries, which are being supported by a strengthening housing market.

Real estate revenue fell 0.5 percent in January, while construction revenue fell 0.2 percent.

Two more readings on small business employment are expected this week. The National Federation of Independent Business releases a survey of its members on Thursday, and the Labor Department releases its February employment report on Friday.

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