The April payrolls data was largely a massive disappointment, but not entirely.
The US economy added only 266,000 jobs last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far undershooting estimates calling for an increase of 1 million payrolls. The unemployment rate rose to 6.1% from 6%, and a handful of industries shed jobs despite the easing of economic restrictions.
While nearly all gauges pointed to a slowing recovery, an alternative measure of nationwide unemployment improved slightly from its March level. The “real” unemployment rate previously mentioned by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen fell to 8.3% in April from 8.7%, by Insider’s calculations. The rate includes workers who have been misclassified as having a job while on furlough and Americans who’ve dropped out of the labor force since February 2020.
The decline suggests about 13.6 million Americans are still jobless despite the economy steadily recovering through the spring. The number of Americans misclassified as holding a job while actually furloughed dropped, dipping from 636,000 to 558,000.
The U-6 rate, which includes those employed part-time for economic reasons, and those marginally attached to the labor, dropped again in April. It went from 10.9% in March to 9.9% in April; while that’s yet another dip, the rate is still nearly in the double digits.
Surprising and confusing data on April jobs
All of those numbers evoke a jobs report that is, in a word, confusing. Industries such as leisure and hospitality – the seeming epicenters of concerns over a labor shortage – saw the strongest job growth, while temporary layoffs also grew in April, which seems to contradict narratives of booming businesses looking to hire. Around 10 million people continue to be unemployed.
An analysis from Morning Consult found that, as of April 1, more workers expected to lose income over the next four weeks. By the end of April, adults across the income spectrum were still experiencing income loss at an “elevated” level. And the number of high-earners – those making over $100,000 – experiencing pay loss the week before actually went up.
It’s hard to say what, exactly, caused the jobs report to look the way that it did; possible reasons include unemployment benefits, temporary layoffs, and a dispiriting dip in female employment. All in all, the jobs report showed a potential turning point in recovery, marking a significant departure from the perhaps easy gains of March.
One mismatch: Childcare, and safely reopened full-time schools, are not necessarily caught up to the adults who want to rejoin the workforce, or have exited it.
“I think we’ve all been very hopeful that we’re turning the corner, and we’re moving forward, and that components of this pandemic – that the big principal issues of the pandemic are behind us – but I think that we need to rethink that,” Misty L. Heggeness, a principal economist and senior advisor at the US Census Bureau, told Insider. “That’s not true for a subset of our workforce. I think we’ve seen improvements until now because these have been the low hanging fruits.”
After April’s shockingly disappointing jobs report, it looks more like “it’s not the economy, stupid, it’s the virus.”
March’s strong jobs data – along with widespread projections of a coming economic boom – had raised optimism among economists for a continued recovery in the labor force. It prompted Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell to deem March an “inflection point” for the reopening of the economy, and experts saw it kicking off a season of outsize payroll increases. But the drop in April makes clear the virus continues to bite.
Economists had expected payroll gains to reach 1 million, but the country added just 266,000 jobs last month. It was the smallest monthly increase since January and the biggest miss of payroll forecasts in more than two decades. The unemployment rate rose to 6.1%, female employment declined, and, although hard-hit sectors like leisure and hospitality saw healthy gains, most others posted either meager growth or shed jobs entirely.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Friday release underscores just how much the labor market still has to recover, and that the climb won’t be as easy as most economists anticipated. Even if April stands out as a gloomy outlier, the average pace of payroll growth suggests it could take years to fully recoup the millions of jobs lost to the pandemic.
What went wrong?
The jobs report was such a shock that it’s hard to find a single explanation at first glance. It also highlights just how inadequate forecasting tools are for measuring this unique economic moment.
Economists typically use a combination of quantitative and qualitative data to estimate future growth. Indicators like weekly jobless claims and hours worked join anecdotal evidence and broad surveys to create forecasting models. Economists’ calculations, when tallied together and averaged, usually come close to guessing monthly payroll additions.
The April data serves as a wake-up call for the many forecasters who didn’t even come close to guessing correctly. Whether models overlooked details like COVID-19 fears or bullish biases tarnished forecasts, economists need to reconcile how they were so wrong.
The disappointment was likely fueled by several factors instead of one solvable hurdle. Despite President Joe Biden’s overdelivering on vaccinations, the country is far from placing the coronavirus pandemic behind it. Daily case counts still averaged about 50,000 at the end of last month, and highly contagious strains continue to spread across the US.
The coronavirus pandemic has also been notable for the “she-cession,” hurting female employment much more than men. The absence of affordable childcare and lack of in-person schooling around the country likely kept some Americans home instead of working, as born out by the April report, which showed women – who disproportionately take on childcare responsibilities – losing jobs through the month.
How big is the labor shortage?
Last month also saw several businesses across the manufacturing and service sectors reporting difficulties in finding workers. The jury is still out on how widespread worker shortages might be, as about 10 million Americans remain unemployed. On one hand, some economists suggest boosted unemployment benefits cut into the incentive to find work. Strong wage growth in the leisure and hospitality sector also signals businesses may need to lift compensation to attract workers.
“The benefits are due to expire in September but perhaps people think jobs will be just as easy to find then as they are now, so why take a job today?,” Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics, said. “If people continue to resist taking the jobs on offer at the pay on offer, then wages will have to rise more quickly.”
The Chamber of Commerce called on lawmakers to withdraw the federal benefit to unemployment insurance following the April report. The supplement results in 25% of recipients earning more from unemployment benefits than by working, Neil Bradley, executive vice president and chief policy officer at the Chamber of Commerce, said in a statement.
“We need a comprehensive approach to dealing with our workforce issues and the very real threat unfilled positions pose to our economic recovery from the pandemic,” he added.
The April data does not quite agree with the chamber’s argument, showing labor demand overshadowing anecdotes of a supply shortage. April job gains were strongest in lower-wage industries and in sectors with in-person jobs. The composition of last month’s job additions “doesn’t scream supply constraints as the problem,” Nick Bunker, an economist at Indeed, wrote on Twitter.
Separately, the number of Americans temporarily laid off ticked slightly higher in April. That also signals labor demand wasn’t as robust as businesses’ anecdotes suggested.
Looking to other labor-market data, the steady decline in weekly jobless claims now looks much less encouraging for the recovery. The April uptick in unemployment comes as filings for unemployment benefits fell throughout the month to numerous pandemic-era lows. The drops initially seemed to signal that more Americans were returning to work, but BLS’ report suggests the downtrend has more to do with Americans dropping out of assistance programs than finding employment.
It could take months for the government to lend a hand
Much of the last few months’ promising job gains were linked to massive stimulus packages. The CARES Act helped a sharp hiring rebound after initial COVID-19 lockdowns in March 2020. And Biden’s $1.9 trillion plan in March 2021 spurred stronger economic activity last month.
The president has since rolled out two new spending proposals, the larger of which would spend $2.3 trillion on job creation. The American Jobs Plan would create millions of jobs by funding traditional infrastructure projects, clean energy initiatives, and nationwide broadband, Biden said in a Thursday speech. Biden’s administration has at other times cited a Moody’s Analytics projection of 2.7 million new jobs from the American Jobs Plan.
The smaller package, named the American Families Plan, could support hiring in its own right by overhauling the care economy, as it seeks to provide paid family and medical leave and childcare support.
Yet such support is likely months away. Republicans have balked at both plans, lambasting their hefty price tags and the tax hikes proposed to offset them. Democrats seem to face a challenge passing the package on a party-line vote via reconciliation, as some moderates in their party have yet to throw their full support behind the follow-up packages as they exist.
To be sure, the April report represents just one month of hiring. May numbers could show a healthy rebound and revive the positive trend. The economy is not even fully reopened from virus-safety considerations yet, so rebounds are likely.
But with additional fiscal support far on the horizon and economists highlighting a number of obstacles hindering job growth, the resurgent spring recovery for jobs that many economists were predicting is gone.