Payroll software provider SurePayroll blamed the cold winter weather for an apparent hiring freeze at small businesses in February.

The February 2014 SurePayroll Small Business Scorecard indicated a frozen hiring picture matching the unusually bitter cold weather throughout much of the country, although the survey also found a slight increase in optimism among small businesses.

Optimism about the small business economy was at 69 percent, according to the Scorecard survey, up 4 percentage points from January. Month over month, hiring and the average paycheck were each down one-tenth of a percentage point, and one in three small business owners said the severe weather was responsible for a slowdown. However, the lack of hiring seems to go deeper than that, as three out of five small business owners in the poll said the cost of salary and wages is still the biggest barrier to bringing on new staff.

“The delay in hiring may be more than just an inclement weather delay,” said SurePayroll CEO and president Michael Alter in a statement. “Yes, it’s been a harsh winter, but we’ve had them before. The underlying problem could be that there isn't enough demand to justify new employees. While we may not be surprised based on our numbers and weak government jobs reports over the last couple months our small business customers continue to hold to their optimistic entrepreneurial spirit.”

The survey also found that one out of three small businesses are having trouble finding qualified candidates for jobs. If cost were not an issue and they were able to hire, small business owners ranked the need for sales and marketing personnel as their top choices.

“It’s an unfortunate Catch-22 when you consider that small businesses can’t afford to hire sales and marketing people, yet these are the types of positions that drive revenue,” said Alter.

Hiring in the South was up 0.1 percentage point month over month; down 0.2 percent in the Midwest; 0.4 percent in the Northeast; and flat in the West. The average paycheck was down 0.3 percent in the Northeast and South, and up 0.2 percent in the Midwest and 0.1 percent in the West.

The complete report, including an infographic and data for the top metropolitan areas, are available now on the SurePayroll blog.