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Unemployment rate falls back to pre-pandemic levels even as job growth slows

The United States added 263,000 jobs in September, marking 21 consecutive months of job growth

A help-wanted sign in Philadelphia. (Matt Rourke/AP)

Job growth slowed again in September, another sign that the labor market is cooling from its red-hot peak earlier this year while remaining an area of strength for a U.S. economy bracing for a downturn.

Employers added 263,000 jobs last month, the Labor Department announced in its monthly jobs report Friday, ticking down from August and following months of strong job growth that defined the pandemic recovery economy. The September figure is the lowest monthly increase in jobs since April 2021.

Unemployment fell back to the 3.5 percent that it reached in July, when the jobless rate returned to pre-pandemic levels. Economists attributed the decline partly to a decrease in labor force participation in September, despite hopes that more workers would reenter the job market.

Even as other economic indicators soured in recent months, the labor market continued to boom. But the jobs outlook is shifting, with wage growth moderating and employers slowing their hiring in anticipation of lower sales.

The September jobs report capped off 21 consecutive months of job growth. The United States has roughly half a million more jobs than it did before the pandemic. In a tweet, President Biden called Friday’s report “an encouraging sign.”

Financial markets fell on the jobs news as investors feared that a falling unemployment rate could trigger additional aggressive interest rate increases by the Federal Reserve as it fights inflation. At midday, the S&P 500 and the tech-heavy Nasdaq were down more than 2 percent.

Daniel Zhao, the lead economist at the job site Glassdoor, saw September’s figures as largely positive news.

“We expected this slower jobs growth,” Zhao said. “That’s consistent with what we’re seeing with the rest of the economy and the Fed’s strategy to get inflation under control.”

The biggest gains occurred in leisure and hospitality, with 83,000 jobs added in September, but it remains one of the few sectors that have not returned to their pre-pandemic strength: Leisure and hospitality is still 1.1 million jobs below its February 2020 level. Health care rose by 60,000 jobs, with strong gains in hospitals and ambulatory health services.

Professional and business services added 46,000 jobs. Temporary-help services added 27,000 jobs. Losses in the temp industry are typically a bellwether for economic downturns.

Manufacturing, construction and wholesale trade continued to see strong growth. Transportation and warehousing, government and mining showed little change. Financial services employment declined slightly.

“Certainly it’s good, stable, steady growth that we’re seeing,” Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said. “Manufacturing is fully recovered despite challenges in the supply chain. The health-care sector is fully recovered, and I was concerned about that.”

Retail reported a loss of 1,000 jobs, which surprised economists heading into the holiday season, when hiring in the sector usually peaks.

Meanwhile, K-12 public school education lost 21,700 workers. Federal data released last month indicated that teacher shortages were most common in special education and the elementary grades. Schools also were grappling with vacancies in transportation and custodial departments.

However, errors in seasonal adjustments could have caused Friday’s reported losses in education, Zhao said.

Nick Bunker, the director of North America economic research for the job site Indeed, said a slowing job market should not cause alarm.

“We have to change our expectations,” Bunker said. “The gains of earlier this year were astronomical, because we were in a very, very large hole when it came to jobs, and we are now getting something akin to full employment.”

The labor force participation rate was little changed at 62.1 percent. This is an area where economists had hoped to see more growth to ease labor shortages.

Joblessness also declined among minority workers, after increases this year. The Black unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent, the lowest rate since the pandemic began. Meanwhile, the Hispanic unemployment rate fell to 3.2 percent, a record low.

Anxieties have flared over a potential downturn as the stock market has tumbled, inflation has soared and the housing market has cooled. Nearly two-thirds of economists recently surveyed by Bankrate, a consumer financial services company, predicted a recession by mid-2024.

The Federal Reserve has warned that households and the labor market will experience some pain, as the Fed continues to raise its benchmark interest rate to temper demand and thereby lower inflation. So far, the labor market has remained resilient, but it is far too early to see the full effects of the Fed’s monetary policy.

Other indicators suggest that the Fed is achieving its goal of softening the labor market without triggering widespread layoffs.

Average hourly earnings continued to increase, but at a slower rate of 0.3 percent this month, to $32.46 an hour, an increase of 10 cents an hour. Slower wage growth suggests that low-wage workers in particular are being hit even harder by inflation while employers have been able to attract workers without further increasing pay.

Fed officials would see an easing of wage increases as a good outcome if inflation slows, according to Steve Preston, the CEO of Goodwill Industries. “I think the hope would be the Fed will begin to see enough calmness [in wage growth that] they wouldn’t need to continue” raising rates, Preston said.

Employers in August had 10.1 million job openings, down about 10 percent from the previous month, according to a Labor Department report released Tuesday.

The continued tightness of the labor market has allowed workers to demand better pay and working conditions. Last week, a three-day strike at San Francisco International Airport resulted in $5-an-hour raises for some 1,000 food-service workers. Meanwhile, Amazon will face a union election next week at a warehouse near Albany, N.Y., that could result in the second unionized shop in the e-commerce giant’s vast logistics empire. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

But workers’ wage gains are still being wiped out by high inflation, which has been more painful for low-income households, which tend to devote a larger share of their income to food and housing. Prices in those two categories have continued to rise sharply.

Jamika Ruffin, 29, makes $10 an hour as a cashier at a McDonald’s in Detroit, after seven years at the fast-food chain. She received a 25-cent raise in January but said the increase has not gone far.

“We’re not living on these wages,” Ruffin said. “We’re surviving. The cost of living has gone up so much this year.”

Ruffin said she cannot always pay her phone bill and has to borrow money so that her daughter can go on field trips with her school. And at the end of the month, they visit soup kitchens for food.

The latest shifts in the labor market have helped some employers.

Jeff Ulmer, the owner of Action Hardware in Wilmington, Del., said he is having an easier time hiring after months of struggling to compete with larger employers for retail workers. High school students, he said, could find jobs at other places that start at $15 an hour, much more than he could afford to pay.

“We’ve had better luck recently,” Ulmer said. “The power between owner and employees had shifted, but it’s starting to go back the other way.”

Donna St. George contributed to this report.