Just a year ago, precautions intended to slow the spread of COVID-19 led U.S. employers to shed more than 20 million jobs — a historic decline in both size and speed. Friday’s jobs report added 266,000 to that total.
The economy is still millions of jobs short of where it was in February 2020, but more than 14.1 million jobs have returned since the April 2020 low.
While the April increase was much smaller than projected, other signs of economic growth abound. GDP grew by a robust 6.4% in the first quarter, retail sales jumped almost 10% in March and the S&P 500 has notched multiple record highs since August.
The stock market isn’t the economy, but it’s where investors make bets on the economy. And changes in employment have generally trailed changes in the S&P 500 since 2000. Note that changes in the S&P 500 (below) charted on a scale 10 times larger than changes in non-farm employment.
What’s behind today’s lofty stock valuations might be expectations that consumers will spend some of the trillions of dollars in federal relief they’ve saved once vaccinations reach a critical mass and businesses fully reopen.
Improvement in some of those industries helped narrow the gap between the number of jobs in the February 2020 employment report, 152.5 million, and the April 2021 report, 144.3 million.
But while COVID-19 cases and deaths continue to decline in the U.S., the virus poses risks inherent to industries such as travel and leisure. 34.5% of the jobs that haven’t returned since February 2020 are hospitality or leisure related.
Help-wanted postings offer out-of-work hospitality workers some encouragement, according to employment site Indeed. While the percentage of ads seeking hospitality workers remains lower than in February 2020, there’s been an upward trend in the past few weeks.
Still, the economy is heating up more quickly in other sectors of the U.S. economy.
The recovery has been uneven across the country, too. Vermont, South Dakota and Nebraska have unemployment rates below 3%, while unemployment in New York, Hawaii and Puerto Rico is nearly three times higher.
Help wanted listings compared to February 2020 are up more than 20% on Indeed, the nation’s largest jobs site, but the uneven jobs recovery in each state is also reflected in help wanted listings.
Idaho’s, Montana’s, South Dakota’s and Maine’s job listings are well above February 2020 levels, while Hawaii and the District of Columbia are still struggling to reach even those levels.
Racial disparities remain as well.
Black Americans’ unemployment rate is more than 3 percentage points higher than the national average. Hispanic Americans’ jobs were hit the hardest last spring with unemployment reaching nearly 19% and remain nearly 2 percentage points above the national average.
While many of the economic signs are flashing encouraging signals, returning to February 2020 levels won’t likely be the finish line for recovery in the labor market.
Since last year, more Americans have reached working age, so reaching an unemployment rate of 3.5% — comparable to the beginning of 2020 — will take longer than just breaking even with February 2020.
Yet, more concerning to economists has been the growing number of Americans who have been unemployed for more than half a year. Since December, 4 million people or more have been among the long-term unemployed.
The latest relief package provides an extra $300 per week to state unemployment benefits through August.