WASHINGTON — Department stores added 9,300 positions in February and specialty stores added 100, despite widespread losses across all sectors that caused U.S. payrolls to fall by 651,000 jobs.

This story first appeared in the March 9, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The nation’s overall unemployment rate increased to 8.1 percent — its highest level in 25 years — from 7.6 percent the previous month.

The Labor Department said employment at department stores rose to 1.54 million positions and specialty stores employed 1.45 million in February. Department stores had slashed 8,600 jobs in January.

Despite the uptick in retail apparel jobs, the sector has contracted significantly in year-to-year comparisons. Specialty stores had 48,300 fewer positions in February than a year ago, and department store employment levels dropped 47,100 in the same period.

Particularly after the holiday season there’s “so much noise” in the retail jobs data that the one-month figures are less meaningful, said Charles McMillion, president and chief economist at MBG Information Services.

“With consumers on strike, the job losses [in the retail sector] and companies being lost are very likely to continue to accelerate,” McMillion said. “There is very little chance in my view that consumer spending is going to come back anytime this year.”

Since the recession started in December 2007, the U.S. economy has lost 4.4 million jobs. The Labor Department said 3 million people have been unemployed for six months or more.

Compared with February, revised employment figures show that overall job declines were even greater in January, when 655,000 jobs were lost, and in December, when the decrease was 681,000,

“The economy is in a tailspin and businesses are slashing at jobs at a breakneck pace, and there’s no reason to expect that this trend will change anytime soon,” said Richard Yamarone, director of economic research at Argus Research Corp.

Nigel Gault, chief U.S. economist at IHS Global Insight, said, “The headline decline didn’t meet the worst fears, but that doesn’t make this report anything but awful. The labor market remains in free fall. The recession is deepening. There is no sign yet even that the rate of contraction is slowing.”

Textile mills, which produce apparel fabric, cut 2,800 positions to employ 131,200 last month compared with January. Textile product mills, which primarily manufacture home furnishing and industrial fabric, eliminated 2,400 positions to employ 136,200. Apparel manufacturers cut 900 jobs, bringing employment in the sector to 178,700.