The American worker had been earning less throughout the pandemic. That ended in March.

restaurant worker New York City NYC
A restaurant worker wears a protective face mask and gloves in midtown as the city continues Phase 4 of re-opening following restrictions imposed to slow the spread of coronavirus on August 13, 2020 in New York City.

  • US wages went into pandemic-related decline in March 2020, and exceeded that level in March 2021, per BLS data
  • The indicator is the latest to surpass past highs as stimulus and reopening power the US rebound.
  • The boost was driven by stronger wage growth for low-wage workers, a group hit hard by lockdowns.
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Various economic indicators are surpassing their pre-pandemic highs as stimulus and reopening drive the country toward a full recovery.

US wages are the latest to rebound.

Salaries and hourly wages finally leaped above their February 2020 peak in March 2021, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Employee payment across the country rose to a seasonally adjusted annual rate of $9.78 trillion from $9.67 trillion, marking a new record high and an eleventh consecutive climb.

By comparison, it took more than twice as long for wages to fully rebound from their decline during the Great Recession.

The sharp increase seen two months ago was powered by stronger wage growth for workers in food preparation and serving, cleaning, and individual care, a group hit hard by lockdowns. Those Americans have enjoyed a massive jump in wages from January to March as vaccines started to be rolled out and service jobs bounced back. Wage growth for managers, professionals, technicians, and office and administration workers remain below their pre-pandemic rates, albeit only slightly so.

The bounceback in low-wage income growth marks a positive development amid the largely uneven recovery. The white unemployment rate still sits significantly lower than that for Black and Asian Americans. And while wages are rebounding across racial and gender lines, the pandemic only exacerbated long-lasting inequalities.

More broadly, the labor market seemed to turn a corner in March. Payroll growth shot higher as stimulus and the easing of lockdown measures juiced the economic recovery. Gains were also strongest among leisure and hospitality businesses, some of the firms hit hardest by the virus and its fallout.

The labor market’s rebound is expected to have accelerated last month. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is set to publish April payroll growth data on Friday and reveal how reopening and warmer weather benefitted hiring. The median estimate from economists surveyed by Bloomberg calls for nearly 1 million nonfarm payroll additions. They also expect the unemployment rate to drop to 5.8% from 6%.

Economists got their first preview of April job creation Wednesday morning. The country’s private sector added 742,000 payrolls in April, according to ADP’s monthly employment report. That missed the median estimate of 873,000 private payrolls but still marked a fourth straight monthly gain.

“Service providers have the most to gain as the economy reopens, recovers, and resumes normal activities and are leading job growth in April,” Nela Richardson, chief economist at ADP, said.

[Editor’s note: This article has been updated to remove the Federal Reserve phrase classifying workers in food preparation and serving, cleaning, and individual care as “low-skill workers,” a term increasingly seen as problematic.]

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