U.S. Adds 661,000 Jobs; Unemployment Rate Drops

Roy Maurer By Roy Maurer October 2, 2020
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U.S. payrolls increased by 661,000 in September, according to the latest report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS)—falling below what economists expected. The report is more evidence that the pace of hiring has slowed, as more layoffs loom.

The unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent from 8.4 percent in August. Economists had been expecting an employment gain of 800,000 and the unemployment rate to fall to 8.2 percent.

The economy has now recovered 11.4 million of the 22 million jobs lost in March in April at the beginning of the pandemic, but job growth is stalling—September was the first month since April that net hiring was below 1 million.

This slowdown is occurring as large corporate layoffs not reflected in the report are imminent: Walt Disney Co. announced 28,000 permanent layoffs and U.S. airlines are proceeding with tens of thousands of job cuts.

"The economy may have added jobs, but at a pace way too slow considering how many jobs were lost earlier this year," said Nick Bunker, an economist at the Indeed Hiring Lab. "The unemployment rate may have dropped, but the share of people with a job only moved up slightly. This report is an illusion of progress at a time when we needed accelerating gains in the labor market. We are not where we need to be, nor are we moving fast enough in the right direction as we head into fall."

The BLS report is the last one before the presidential election on Nov. 3.

"The report shows we are still clearly in the snap-back phase of the recovery, as jobs that were switched off because of COVID are blinking back online," said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of global outplacement and executive coaching firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, based in Chicago. "While we're seeing jobs come back, there is concurrent destruction occurring in the labor market as companies right-size their organizations to meet the decidedly lower demand they expect to face over the next two or three years," he said.

Employers continue to bring back workers—about half of the workers furloughed or laid off at the onset of the pandemic have now been rehired—but the pace of recovery is slowing while there is still a long way to go, said Julia Pollak, a labor economist at ZipRecruiter, an online employment marketplace in Santa Monica, Calif. "Even after the recent gains, we still have nearly 11 million fewer jobs than before the pandemic," she said. "By comparison, we lost 8.7 million jobs in the Great Recession."

Becky Frankiewicz, president of ManpowerGroup North America, said that the BLS report shows steady improvement, especially hiring in leisure and hospitality and operations and logistics.

Job gains were broad-based, with most sectors of the economy adding to payrolls in September, said Andrew Chamberlain, chief economist at Glassdoor.

Employment in leisure and hospitality increased by 318,000, with almost two-thirds of the gain occurring in restaurants and bars. Despite job growth totaling 3.8 million over the last five months, employment in this sector is still down by millions since the onset of the coronavirus.

Retailers added 142,000 jobs, with most of those coming in clothing stores.

"The recovery is primarily being driven by continued rehiring in the hardest-hit industries including leisure and hospitality, retail and health care," Chamberlain said.

"Many service-sector industries are continuing to recover briskly as many states and cities eased coronavirus restrictions and increased capacity limits on restaurants, gyms and stores," Pollak said. "As restrictions are lifted in the largest cities, we can expect to see a rapid bounce back."

She added that some industries haven't yet begun to recover. "The education sector is still shedding jobs, as are the performing arts and spectator sports, hospitals, coal mines, facilities support services and travel agencies."

Professional and business services contributed 89,000 jobs and the transportation and warehousing sector was up 74,000 jobs. Manufacturing grew by 66,000, financial activities added 37,000 and construction employment grew by 26,000 jobs last month, mostly in residential building. By comparison, nonresidential building gained 5,300 jobs and infrastructure work lost 3,400 positions.

Public-sector employment declined by 216,000 jobs in September, mainly due to state and local public schools failing to reopen due to the national health crisis. "Another deeply concerning thing is that we are down 1.2 million state and local government jobs over the last seven months, more than two-thirds of them in education," said Heidi Shierholz, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C. This will only get worse without aid from Congress, she added.

A decrease of 34,000 jobs in the federal government was driven by a decline in the number of temporary Census 2020 workers. "Nearly a quarter of a million jobs are temporary jobs related to the decennial census that will disappear in the next few months," Shierholz said.

Unemployment Concerning

The official unemployment rate is now in line with previous recessions.

Chamberlain pointed out that the number of workers on temporary layoff declined sharply from 6.2 million in August to 4.6 million in September, "a reminder that the nation's impressive job growth in September is still largely driven by rehiring of furloughed workers as a patchwork of state and local government health restrictions are gradually lifted throughout the country."

But the number of workers whose layoffs became permanent rose in September, a sign that joblessness will become longer lasting. "There was a surge of 351,000 workers who have been permanently laid off," Shierholz said. "This does not bode well at all for the pace of the recovery."

Shierholz argued that the unemployment picture is much worse than the headline number of 12.6 million workers officially counted as unemployed. She said that there were an additional 800,000 workers temporarily unemployed but misclassified as employed and another 5 million workers out of work as a result of the virus but being counted as having dropped out of the labor force because they weren't actively seeking work.

"If all these workers were taken into account, the unemployment rate would have been 12.5 percent in September," she said. "There are also 9 million workers who are employed but have seen a drop in hours and pay as a result of the virus."

Another concern is that the decline in the unemployment rate came along with a 0.3 percentage point drop in the labor force participation rate to 61.4 percent. That's nearly 700,000 people.

"The decline in the unemployment rate in September was mostly for bad reasons—people dropping out of the labor force, not people getting jobs," Shierholz said.

The prime-age employment rate also decreased and long-term unemployment (unemployment lasting more than six months) increased by 781,000 to 2.4 million workers.

However, a measure that counts discouraged workers and those working part-time for economic reasons also declined, falling from 14.2 percent to 12.8 percent.

The unemployment rate fell for all demographic groups. The rate declined for Asian workers from 10.7 percent to 8.9 percent; for Black workers from 13 percent to 12.1; for Hispanic workers from 10.5 percent to 10.3 percent; and for white workers from 7.3 percent to 7.0 percent.

"One surprising thing about the job loss of March and April is that it was fairly racially equitable—the black and white unemployment rates both rose by about 11 percentage points," Shierholz said. "But the period since then has been a totally different story. Since the peak, the white unemployment rate has come down more than 50 percent faster than the Black unemployment rate."

Pollak said that women also continue to bear the brunt of the economic pain. "This is the first recession where the percentage decline in service-sector employment has exceeded that in the goods-producing sector," she said. "The industry distribution of job losses has been unfavorable to women, who are heavily concentrated in face-to-face services. School closures have also had a larger effect on female labor force participation. Since February, the labor force participation rate for men aged 25 to 54 has fallen by 1.6 percentage points, while that for women in the same age group has fallen by 2.8 percentage points.

The unemployment rate for men fell from 8.0 percent in August to 7.4 percent in September. The rate for women dropped from 8.4 percent to 7.7 percent during that time.

Declining female workforce participation is an area to watch and take action to address, Frankiewicz said. "We're advising clients to focus on offering flexible work options, autonomy for people to choose schedules that work best, and to think about the skills that are needed vs. desired for new roles."

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