The additions were a welcome blast of good news in a grueling summer for the United States, but they were tempered with other signs that the labor market is cooling.
In May, the first month of gains after the pandemic sent the economy into a tailspin, 2.7 million people were added back to payrolls. In June, employment surged by 4.8 million.
But July’s gains were modest in comparison. And economists warn that the monthly unemployment number, based on a survey taken in mid-July, lags behind the more current snapshots of the market, as the pandemic’s rise has touched off more closures, restrictions and disruption around the country.
The job growth was driven by hiring in sectors that had been hit hard by the pandemic, such as leisure and hospitality, which increased by 592,000 jobs — about a third of the total monthly gain. Employment at restaurants, bars and other food and drink services rose by 502,000. Retail employment gained back 258,000 jobs. Amusements, gambling and recreation added another 100,000.
But employment in those sectors remains well below pre-pandemic levels, dashing hopes of a V-shaped bounce-back, with more than half of the 22 million jobs that have been lost since February yet to recover.
More than 30 million people are receiving some form of unemployment insurance, and many say they are being pushed to the brink by the expiration of the extra $600 a week in federal unemployment benefits, in an economy where there is little hope of finding new work.
Barbara Lochridge, 67, is two months behind on rent, $15,000 behind on her credit card, and considering packing up and moving into her car after losing her job as an elementary school crossing guard in Los Angeles in March.
She doesn’t know how she will get by on the $99 a week she gets from the state now that the $600 benefit has expired. She’s been pawning some of her few possessions, like jewelry and a signed print from Norman Rockwell, in the meantime and wondering if, as a cancer survivor, she can risk taking a position as a temperature checker at a hotel.
“If I get sick, I get sick,” she said. “I don’t have any other choice.”
She said she had some questions for the members of Congress who opposed extending the $600 benefit.
“How much money are you making? How much are you worth?” she said. “And why would you take away from the American people what they need to keep afloat?”
The troubled $660 billion Paycheck Protection Program is ending and many small businesses have begun reporting layoffs as they deplete the funds. Schools are beginning to reopen around the country in what has emerged as yet another bitter political debate. A presidential election like no other before it looms.
And with the virus far from contained, economists say more troubling economic signs have emerged in recent weeks.
Data from payroll processing company ADP showed a slowdown in hiring during July. The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis pointed to indicators this week from scheduling company Homebase that showed the recovery in employment that took place in May and June had begun to halt as a result of the spike in coronavirus infections. That data showed a strong correlation between states with larger infections and the slowdown in the labor market’s recovery.
“We’re going to see a slightly different picture when the impact of that is fully felt,” said Lisa Cook, an economist at Michigan State University. “It’s an encouraging as a stand-alone report but what is to come scares me. This is still a really weak market.”
The relentless politicizing of economic statistics — President Trump has touted the dropping unemployment rate as a sign of his administration’s competence — has also helped obscure the continuing magnitude of the current crisis.
The 10.2 percent unemployment rate remains one of the highest since World War II, and the slowdown in gains raises the uncomfortable specter that double-digit unemployment could persist if it continues.
“No one should take confidence in this report — the economy has moved sideways since June,” said Joseph Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM. “Any notion that the improvement in the top line provides a convenient excuse for policymakers to avoid hard decisions about more fiscal aid aimed at the unemployed should be summarily dismissed.”
Millions of workers and businesses in fields like tourism, travel, entertainment and restaurants face the unsettling prospect that their jobs may never fully return the longer that life remains in an altered state.
“When I come to work, I see an empty parking lot,” said Bill Winkler, the president of Peoria Charter, a family-owned bus and transportation company in Illinois, which has lost nearly all of its business since March.
The company was able to bring back about half of the 120 workers it had to lay off early in the pandemic, after it received a $1.2 million PPP loan.
But it was forced to let them go again when the money ran out in July — the company has lost 98 percent of its revenue, Winkler said.
With only 10 employees left on the payroll, few businesses signing up to charter buses, and almost no consumers buying tickets on lines that used to run to Chicago 14 times a day, the business is at risk of closing.
“Until people feel comfortable in big groups indoors, my company is going to continue to suffer,” Winkler said.
Other businesses announcing job cuts in the last week include: hoteling retailer DFS Group, Alaska Airlines, Stanford University and manufacturer John Deere.