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New Job Report Shows Signs Of Improving Economy

Jun 5, 2020
Originally published on June 5, 2020 6:54 pm

SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:

As we just heard, the U.S. job market is slowly coming back. The Labor Department issued a surprisingly upbeat report today showing U.S. employers added 2 1/2 million jobs last month. That follows historic job losses in March and April as the economy locked down in the face of the coronavirus. Now that businesses are reopening, jobs are staging a faster than expected comeback, as NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Economist Mark Zandi of Moody's Analytics did a double take when he saw the jobs report this morning and realized the headline number of 2 1/2 million jobs actually came with a plus sign attached.

MARK ZANDI: It just feels really good, and I think we should exhale. I mean, it's a really encouraging sign.

HORSLEY: Forecasters had been bracing for millions of job losses in May and a spike in the unemployment rate to levels not seen since the Great Depression. Instead, the report shows employees went back to work faster than expected last month as stay-at-home orders were relaxed. President Trump celebrated in the White House Rose Garden this morning, suggesting jobs could rebound almost as quickly as they went away - what economists call a V-shaped recovery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now we're opening, and we're opening with a bang. And we've been talking about the V. This is better than a V. This is a rocket ship.

HORSLEY: The president's own hopes for keeping his job in November may well hinge on how people feel about the economy. Even with last month's improvement, unemployment is still 13.3%. That's higher than at any time during the Great Recession. The jobless rates for African Americans and Latinos are higher still, a reminder of the persistent inequality helping to fuel widespread demonstrations around the country.

While the economy added 2 1/2 million jobs last month, it lost more than 22 million in March and April. Despite Trump's rosy forecast of a rocket ship recovery, Zandi thinks digging out of that hole will be a long slog, and that's assuming there's no big surge of new coronavirus infections.

ZANDI: The recession is over, and we're off and running. But we're not going to be running very fast or very far until we have some solution to this virus.

HORSLEY: So far, bars and restaurants have rehired about 1 out of 5 workers who were laid off in March and April. For many of the remaining workers, though, it could be slow going. Bartender Susan McAleer used to work for a bistro in Philadelphia that catered to a lot of tourists and theatergoers. And there aren't many of either these days. What's more, the restaurant's tight quarters make it hard to keep tables six feet apart.

SUSAN MCALEER: The things that I like about restaurants are sort of the social interaction. I don't know if that can happen.

HORSLEY: McAleer also wonders how restaurants can control the coronavirus and still create the kind of atmosphere the customers will want to hang out in.

MCALEER: Do we have to salt and pepper everybody's food? I don't understand. Like, you can't even have salt and pepper shakers.

HORSLEY: Businesses around the country are grappling with questions like this, and some will have trouble finding answers that make economic sense. Trump suggested today there may be some additional relief in the pipeline for restaurants, but he offered no details. And he repeated his call for a payroll tax cut.

Retailers, manufacturers and construction crews all added workers last month, but health care was a mixed picture. Dentists offices were hiring. Nursing homes kept laying people off. The doctor's office where Sara Goldberg used to help patients switched to telemedicine during the pandemic. She's afraid that's a lasting change.

SARA GOLDBERG: And the thought went through my head, well, there goes my job.

HORSLEY: Goldberg, who lives in South Portland, Maine, applied for a job with a school district. But that didn't pan out either.

GOLDBERG: I found out just yesterday that, because of budget constraints, they aren't filling any of the open positions right now.

HORSLEY: Indeed with their budgets hammered by the pandemic, state and local governments continued to cut more than half a million jobs last month on top of the more than 900,000 jobs they eliminated in April. Unless Congress OKs some help for these cash-strapped governments, more cuts could be coming for teachers, firefighters and police. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.