The labor market recovery that President Joe Biden has promised slowed again in September, with a weaker-than-expected 194,000 new jobs created.
That suggests school reopenings and the end of generous federal jobless benefits haven't brought enough Americans back into the labor force amid the resurgence of the coronavirus.
Yet the recovery has been uneven throughout the economy, with women, teachers and health care employees suffering from the slow rebound last month, according to a Labor Department report released Friday. Among the gainers in September were white and Asian workers, retail and hospitality employees, the long-term unemployed and wage earners generally.
While the overall unemployment rate fell to 4.8 percent from 5.2 percent, the drop was likely fueled by 183,000 people leaving the labor force.
Here’s a closer look at how key groups fared in September:
The report showed that 309,000 women 20 years and older dropped out of the labor market in September, marking the second straight month of losses. Men in the same age group regained 182,000 jobs.
Working women have been acutely affected by the school and child care closures prompted by the pandemic, holding many back from returning to the workforce. But they were initially expected to go back to work in September, with school reopenings relieving some of the responsibilities that had been keeping them at home. But since the Delta variant of the coronavirus took hold in late summer and disrupted school plans, economists have been bracing for a devastating September for women who may have had to continue taking care of their kids amid the uncertainty. The numbers show that concern was well-founded.
While other major ethnic groups have seen their unemployment rates near or below the national level throughout most of 2021, the rate among Black workers had remained near 9 percent. In September, Black unemployment fell by almost a full percentage point to 7.9 percent, narrowing the gap on the national rate of 4.8 percent. The bad news: 83,000 Black workers also left the labor force last month, probably contributing to the drop in the jobless rate.
Black workers — and women in particular — make up large shares of the workforce in health services and child care, industries that have been slower than most to recover. AFL-CIO Chief Economist Bill Spriggs has also argued that the stubbornly high unemployment rate among Black workers could be due to discrimination in hiring.
Hispanic workers have also been experiencing jobless rates above the national level, seeing 6.3 percent unemployment in September, little changed from August. White and Asian workers have been recovering more quickly, with the unemployment rate falling to 4.2 percent in September for both groups.
Retail and leisure
Consumer-facing industries including retail, leisure and hospitality were walloped in early 2020 by pandemic safety restrictions and business closures, facing the largest post-pandemic jobs deficit of any sector of the economy. They remain the first to take the hit when fears of the virus increase. But both sectors saw some improvement in September, which is a good sign for the economy as coronavirus cases start to recede. Leisure and hospitality added 74,000 jobs, while retail added 56,000.
Labor force participation
Beyond the topline number, the jobs reports suggests that fewer people were optimistic enough about the market to look for work last month.
While the national unemployment rate has been falling for months, the labor force participation rate — which captures how many people are either employed or actively looking for work — has remained pretty stagnant. That rate was 61.6 percent in September, not much different from the 61.7 percent in August. It’s also still down 1.7 percentage points from February 2020, just before the pandemic hit. That matters because the size of the workforce is tied to productivity, which is the basis for wage gains.
Many Republicans had predicted that the Sept. 6 expiration of federal unemployment benefits would increase employment as Americans could no longer afford to stay away from work. But since the jobless aid has ended for millions, many people have fallen out of the labor force instead and are no longer considered “unemployed.” While this can push the unemployment rate down — if you're not actually looking for a job, you're not counted as unemployed — it’s also a sign that there are fewer people actively available for work.
Average hourly earnings increased in September by 19 cents, bringing them to $30.85. That follows five months of significant hikes in wages and suggests that the widespread demand for workers as businesses have reopened has put upward pressure on pay, as employers compete for labor.
Long term unemployed
The longer people remain unemployed, the longer it typically takes them to find a job, which is why economists like to keep an eye on the number of those who have been out of a job for at least six months. That figure fell by nearly 500,000 last month, which is a good indicator of labor market health, as people with large gaps on their resumés can face more obstacles to reemployment and can find themselves in deeper financial trouble. However, there were still 1.6 million more long-term unemployed in the workforce last month than before the pandemic began.
One of the puzzles in the jobs report was the loss of jobs in state and local public education in September — the month when schools were supposed to reopen. Instead, the market saw a notable decrease in jobs in this area — a drop of 161,000 workers, which dragged down the headline numbers.
Much of this, however, is likely due to seasonal adjustment. That’s because schools usually ramp up hiring in September for the start of the academic year, so the models that adjust for seasonal factors expect it. But this year, some of those hires may have taken place in July and August as students started earlier, making September hiring in public education slower than normal. But while the decline of 161,000 looks bad, it’s probably due in part to hires that did not happen last month rather than actual job losses, a key distinction.
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