The US added just 194,000 jobs last month, falling far short of expectations for the second consecutive month even as schools reopened and COVID-19 cases began to fall, the feds said Friday.
September’s numbers fell far short of economists’ expectations of 500,000 jobs added, and comes after the country added a disappointing 366,000 jobs in August, according to revised figures released Friday.
At the same time, the unemployment rate dropped more than expected to 4.8 percent in September — the lowest since February, 2020, and down from 5.2 percent in August — according to Friday’s highly anticipated jobs report from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That’s still far higher than the 50-year low of 3.5 percent reported in February of last year, before the pandemic gutted the economy, but represents steady progress as the labor rebound continues.
Economists surveyed by Dow Jones had expected to see the unemployment rate tick down to 5.1 percent.
“The headline jobs number was certainly disappointing – below expectations, and even below the already weak number from last month – and that raises real concerns about growth through the end of the year. But when we look at the details, things are a bit less worrying,” said Brad McMillan, chief investment officer for Commonwealth Financial Network.
The number of Americans on government payroll fell by 123,000, partially offsetting an increase of 317,000 on private payrolls, suggesting hiring strength in the private sector, McMillan noted.
“While below expectations, it is a substantial improvement over last month,” he said.
Even as the economy added fewer new workers than expected, the wages of existing workers jumped. Average hourly earnings rose 0.6 percent in September from August, the feds said, pushing the year-over-year increase to 4.6 percent.
“The demand for labor clearly remains strong. The problem looks to be the supply of labor,” McMillan said, noting that the labor force participation rate edged slightly lower.
“The declines in the unemployment measures and the participation rate show that the movement of people back to the labor force has paused. While this is clearly a concern, it also ties quite closely to the recent delta wave of the virus, and the trend could well improve now that the medical news is improving,” he said.
“The biggest problem is not that growth has slowed; it is that people are still scared to go back to work.”
Despite some of the positive details in the report, Cliff Hodge, chief investment officer for Cornerstone Wealth, called the readout “the worst print of the year.”
The jump in average hourly wages “highlights the risk for stagflation,” he said.
The hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector, which has led the jobs recovery this year with gains of 350,000 per month in the first half of the year, added 74,000 jobs after job creation stalled out among bars, restaurants and hotels in August.
Professional and business services created 60,000 new jobs in September, the feds said. Transportation and warehousing added 47,000 new positions while private education lost 19,000.
Notably, manufacturing picked up 26,000 new hires while construction added 22,000 new jobs.
A surge in COVID-19 cases fueled by the highly contagious Delta variant may have kept some hesitant workers on the sidelines late in the summer, economists say. Child care concerns with schools still out in August likely also kept would-be employees at home.
But with schools back and the surge in COVID cases subsiding, economists expect to see the recovery in the job market march forward this fall — barring another flare-up in COVID cases.
Another factor holding back the economic recovery could be the patchwork corporate strategy on vaccine mandates, said Peter Earle, an economist at the American Institute for Economic Research.
President Biden has called on major employers to mandate vaccinations among workers. Some major companies have while others have incentivized getting the shots, but stopped short of mandating it.
“The headline number miss has everything to do with a confusing patchwork of policies and messages on compulsory vaccination,” he said.
“I think this number shows that both public and private policy responses to the Delta variant are weighing on the economic recovery that began last fall.”
Companies appear eager to hire across the board, according to federal data.
There were nearly 11 million unfilled jobs at the end of July, more than ever recorded before, the Labor Department’s data shows, and employers have been complaining that a nationwide labor shortage is holding them back from producing and delivering goods.
The September jobs report is also the first to include data that reflects the end of the federal government’s pandemic-inspired unemployment benefits program, which gave people an extra $300 per week and was blamed for keeping workers on the sidelines as companies scrambled to hire.
Those extra benefits ended in the first week of September, knocking millions off unemployment. Economists will be watching to see if those people replaced income with a job or fell out of the labor force entirely.
While economists and corporate executives have still voiced concern about supply-chain disruptions holding back spending and sending prices higher, the overall economic recovery has continued to gain steam after a brief setback in the summer.
“While there are some encouraging signs that the worst may have passed with the Delta variant of COVID-19, which took wind out of the proverbial sails of the economic recovery, supply-chain challenges and rising prices persist with no immediate sign of substantial resolution or improvement,” said Mark Hamrick, Bankrate’s senior economic analyst.
“Cargo ships unable to head to West Coast ports, a trucker shortage and lack of sufficient rail capacity are among the complicating factors all conspiring to boost product and component bottlenecks when retailers are very much focused on the holiday shopping season.”
Officials at the Federal Reserve have voiced optimism about the state of the economy and the pace of the labor market’s recovery.
Fed Chairman Jerome Powell said in August that the central bank could begin reversing its easy-money policies as soon as this year, suggesting confidence in the recovery.
But the disappointing September jobs report could cast doubt on the Fed’s timeline, said Jamie Cox, managing partner for Harris Financial Group.
“This jobs number could call into question the starting point for taper late this year,” he said.
“There are lots of positives in the report, like an uptick in average hourly earnings, but not enough to sugar coat the fact the employment picture remains murky with all the covid related cross currents.”