WASHINGTON (AP) – U.S. employers added just 194,000 jobs in September, another lukewarm gain and proof that the pandemic is still gripping the economy, with many companies struggling to fill millions of open jobs.
Friday’s report from the Labor Department also showed that unemployment fell sharply to 4.8% from 5.2% in August.
The economy is showing some signs of getting out of the drag of the delta variant of coronavirus, with confirmed new COVID-19 infections declining, restaurant traffic increasing slightly and consumers eager to use.
But new infections remained high as September began, and employers are still struggling to find workers because many people who lost jobs in the pandemic have not yet started applying again. Supply chain bottlenecks have also deteriorated, braking factories, limited house builders and emptying some store shelves.
Many economists still believe that most of the approximately 3 million people who lost their jobs and stopped looking for work since the pandemic hit will resume their searches as COVID declines. It took years after the 2008-2009 recession, they note, that the proportion of people working or looking for work is returning to pre-recession levels. The government does not count people as unemployed unless they are actively looking for jobs.
Some of the factors that have kept many unemployed people on the sidelines may begin to ease. According to a Census Bureau study, for example, the number of people not working because they have to stay home to care for a child fell by half in September compared to June. That number had hardly dropped last fall, as many schools remained closed and performed virtual learning. The new censuses suggest that more parents, especially mothers, may have returned to the workforce last month when the school year began and their children returned to school.
In addition, a August survey from job site Indeed found that the proportion of unemployed Americans who said they would like to find a job when the school year began had more than doubled from just two months earlier.
Yet there are also signs that it may be too early to expect a flood of parents returning to the job market. Lael Brainard, a member of the Fed’s Board of Governors, noted in a recent speech that COVID-19 outbreaks in late September caused 2,000 schools to close for an average of six days in 39 states.
Several enhanced unemployment benefits ended in early September, including a $ 300-a-week federal supplement as well as programs that for the first time covered concert workers and people who were unemployed for six months or more. So far, the termination of these programs has had only a small effect on the number of people seeking work.
Governors in about 25 states ended the $ 300 benefit before the nationwide expiration in September. Surveys conducted by economists at Goldman Sachs found that unemployed people looking for work were much more likely to take jobs when their benefits ended. But the early cut-offs did not get people on the sidelines to start searching again, Goldman concluded.
Another reason why workers are scarce is an increase in retirement life among older, more affluent workers, whose equity and inventories in the home have risen since the pandemic hit, and who have managed to build savings. Goldman Sachs estimates that about 1.5 million people have retired who would not have strengthened the economy before the pandemic. Many of these people are likely to retire, economists expect.
Meanwhile, fears of COVID continue to keep some potential job seekers on the sidelines, especially those who have previously worked in public service jobs at restaurants, bars, hotels and retailers.