The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The economy added 245,000 jobs in November, the slowest month of growth since recovery began

The new data comes as Congress is trying to reach an economic relief deal before next year

Fabian Rodriguez cleans a table in an outdoor tented dining area of Tequila Museo Mayahuel in Sacramento (Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

The U.S. economy added 245,000 jobs in November — the slowest month of growth since spring and a warning for the recovery in the months ahead as infections surge to new heights across the country.

The November unemployment rate ticked down to 6.7, from 6.9 percent, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the decrease was primarily due to a large number of workers leaving the labor force.

“This is an ugly report,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “Two-hundred forty-five thousand, when you’re still more than 9 million in the hole. It will go negative next month.”

The news focused attention on ongoing deliberations on Capitol Hill over a new round of stimulus aid, with President-elect Joe Biden saying that the situation required “urgent action.”

“This is a grim jobs report,” Biden said in a statement. “It shows an economy that is stalling. It confirms we remain in the midst of one of the worst economic and jobs crises in modern history.”

A $908 billion bipartisan spending deal is beginning to take shape that would extend some relief to unemployed workers, as well as $300 billion to small businesses, $160 billion for state and local governments, and an additional $300 a week to unemployment benefits.

Momentum builds for bipartisan $908 billion stimulus package as more GOP senators express support

In November, job gains were driven by 145,000 jobs added in transportation and warehousing, with more modest growth in other industries.

Professional and business services added 60,000 jobs, health care added 46,000 jobs, and construction and manufacturing both added 27,000. Leisure and hospitality, one of the most badly hit sectors of the economy, added back 31,000 jobs, but is still 3.4 million jobs short of where it was in February.

Retail jobs were down 35,000; bars, restaurants and other food-service establishment places lost 17,000.

Coronavirus cases began to spike in the weeks before the data was collected and in striking fashion, the report showed the ways that the caseload is reshaping — and reducing — economic activity.

The number of people working from home again ticked up. Workers on part-time schedules increased. The proportion of people on temporary layoffs went down.

“There’s a group of people who are still working but whose wages have been cut due to the pandemic,” said Trevon Logan, an economics professor at Ohio State University. “Just because businesses are open does not mean workers are earning anything near what they earned earlier.”

The shift to online shopping was reflected in increased hiring for warehousing workers — mostly delivery couriers. But retail declined overall even as the holiday season — typically a boom time for retailers — was getting into swing. Of the 12 retail subsectors tracked by the Labor Department, 10 posted their worst month of the recovery.

Some 400,000 people left the labor force since October, sending the participation rate down 0.2 percent. About 7 million people are not in the labor force but currently want a job — 2.2 million more than in February. The economy has 9.8 million fewer jobs now than it did before the pandemic — a hole that is still deeper than the 8.7 million jobs lost during the Great Recession, months into the current recovery.

And more bad news will be forthcoming in December, economists warned.

“One should anticipate rough sledding over the next 90 days in terms of hiring,” said Joe Brusuelas, chief economist at RSM, an accounting firm focused on midsize businesses. “I mean, it just screams the economy needs more fiscal aid, right now.”

The United States is at a perilous moment.

The aid programs that helped prop up businesses and households during the worst of the pandemic have long expired, and the House, Senate and the White House have spent months in disagreement in negotiations over further action.

Unemployment benefits for an estimated 12 million people will expire at the end of the year if they fail to act.

And the virus’s surge has begun touching off a new round of closures and restrictions, as the caseload increases across a broader swath of the country than before.

Swonk said the report shows the severe toll that the spread of infections is beginning to have on the economy, even absent the shutdowns and restrictions that many have blamed for the country’s economic malaise.

“It really is a testimony to how sensitive the economy is to the cases,” she said. “The survey week was before we had any restrictions go into place.”

The economic crisis continues to unfold on a split-screen. On one side, the stock market has risen to record heights with investors betting on optimism about vaccine development. The fortunes of the ultrawealthy have grown. On the other, the economic crisis has delivered a severe blow for those at the lower end of the income ladder.

For the high-wage earners, the jobless crisis has ended, at least temporarily. The employment rate for people making more than $60,000 a year is up compared to January, while low-wage jobs are down nearly 20 percent, according to Opportunity Insights’ recovery tracker.

“There’s increasing evidence it [the recovery] is a K,” David Berson, the chief economist at Nationwide Insurance. “We had the big drop, and for much of the country who are on the up part of the K, things are pretty good. Good job growth, good income growth, low interest rates. But the down part of the K, a substantial portion of the population, is hurting significantly.”

President Trump has spent the last month complaining about the election he lost and has not played a major role in the negotiations between House and Senate lawmakers on a new economic relief package.

The only retailers to show modest growth in the jobs report were furniture stores and car dealerships — more a reflection of how wealthier segments of the country have money to spend on outfitting homes and buying new cars, than the type of robust consumer spending that typically sustains the United States economy, Swonk said.

Many unemployed people, particularly in industries like tourism, describe furloughs that have turned into permanent layoffs in recent months.

And those like Orlando-area resident Charles Graham, 36, who was let go in September from his job at a company that sells theme park tickets after months of being on furlough, say new jobs are harder to come by now than ever before.

Graham estimates he’s applied to 30-50 jobs and received only two callbacks. A job offer has yet to materialize. So he’s left with the $220 he gets a week from the state of Florida for unemployment, fuming as he watches the Senate, House and White House squabble.

“It’s like watching children fight,” he said.

There have been warning signs in recent months.

Data from the scheduling software company Homebase shows the number of hours worked by employees, the number of employees clocking in and the number of open businesses all falling beginning in late October, reaching the lowest levels since the spring. It was the first time since March that Homebase data had shown the number of working employees declining.

Mobility, measured from cellphone data according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, began falling nationally in mid-November. Consumer spending, captured by credit card and debit card data compiled by Opportunity Insights, began to fall at the end of October before rebounding in November, buoyed perhaps by the holiday season. Job postings also fell around that time before a slight rebound.

The number of Americans reporting difficulty getting enough to eat has been creeping up, according to Census Bureau data. About 13 percent of households with children reported sometimes or often not having enough food to eat. More than 1 in 3 people surveyed recently said that they are having difficulty paying for household expenses.

Lines of cars continue to illustrate the elevated demand for basic supplies like food and diapers.

“Demand continues to be two to three times across the board what it was pre-pandemic,” said Phillip Vander Klay, director of policy and government relations at the National Diaper Bank Network, which works with about 220 diaper banks around the country. “With the combination of shutdowns starting up again, increased restrictions and the delay in getting more emergency relief from the federal government, we really expect this to continue into the holiday season.”

Andrew Van Dam contributed to this report.