updated 4/6/2011 3:46:08 PM ET 2011-04-06T19:46:08

Unemployment rates are falling in most metro areas across the country, suggesting that recent nationwide gains in hiring are widespread and not limited to a few healthy regions.

More than three-quarters of the nation's 372 largest metro areas reported lower unemployment rates in February than the previous month, the Labor Department said Wednesday. That's the most to report a decline since September.

And more than 300 areas added jobs in February compared to the previous month. That's a much better showing than January, when most metro areas lost jobs.

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The gains "are definitely becoming a lot more broad-based," said Marisa DiNatale, a regional economist at Moody's Analytics.

The metro areas that posted the biggest job gains in February, compared with the previous month, were: Los Angeles-Long Beach, with a gain of 53,600; New York City-Northern New Jersey, a gain of 18,500; and Miami-Fort Lauderdale, up 16,800.

Many big cities also saw steep drops in unemployment from January to February. The rate dropped from 9.3 percent to 8.8 percent in Phoenix; from 7.3 percent to 6.9 percent in the Austin, Texas metro area; and from 11.5 percent to 10.6 percent in Jacksonville, Fla.

The metro employment data is distorted by seasonal trends, such as the layoff of temporary retail employees after the holidays. Since it is not seasonally adjusted, it is more volatile from one month to the next.

More than 300 cities have seen their unemployment rates decline in the past year, the best showing since the recession ended in June 2009.

And 284 metro areas reported job gains in the past year, also the most since the recession ended.

Nationwide, private employers added more than 200,000 jobs in both February and March, the best two-month pace since 2006. The local data is one month behind the national figures.

Many of the cities that posted job losses were state capitals. State governments around the country are laying off workers in an effort to reduce huge budget deficits. The Sacramento, Calif. metro area posted the largest job loss over the past year, shedding 13,600 jobs. The Albany, N.Y. region reported the fifth-biggest loss, with 4,900.

Major Market Indices

Sandusky, Ohio reported the biggest percentage increase in its payrolls over the past year, adding 3,100 new jobs, or a 9.6 percent gain. The city is a tourism hub and is benefiting from a renewed willingness among Americans to take vacations. Cedar Fair Entertainment Co., the nation's third-largest amusement park chain, is based in Sandusky, and so is one of its largest parks, Cedar Point. The chain reported record attendance in 2010.

Story: Solid jobs growth in March shows recovery is for real

A rebound in auto makers and other manufacturers has benefited many cities in the Midwest. That includes Kokomo, Ind., which reported the second-biggest percentage gain in jobs in the past year.

Lincoln, Neb. reported the nation's lowest unemployment rate, at 4.2 percent. Bismarck, N.D. posted the second-lowest, at 4.6 percent, followed by Ames, Iowa, Fargo, N.D. and Iowa City, Iowa, all at 4.7 percent.

El Centro, Calif. reported the highest unemployment rate, at 26.9 percent, followed by Yuma, Ariz., with 21.5 percent. The two cities are adjacent and include a large number of seasonal farm workers.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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