This is probably the biggest upside surprise in a jobs report in history.
It means the job market has turned a corner earlier than expected. Forecasters had generally been predicting that net-positive hiring would begin sometime this summer, not in May.
The bad news? We may have started filling in the hole, but that hole remains very, very deep. I bring you the scariest jobs chart you will see all day:
The chart above shows net job changes in the current recession compared with other recent recessions (and subsequent recoveries). The red line, which moves almost vertically downward before a short spike upward, represents the current cycle. The horizontal axis shows months since the most recent employment peak, which in this case was in February 2020.
As you can see, total payroll employment is still down 12.8 percent, on net, over the past three months. Put another way, we’ve lost 19.6 million jobs on net since the pandemic shuttered much of the economy, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
So if you’re one of the millions hired last month, you’re likely much relieved — but Friday’s report is cold comfort if you’re still one of the many more millions of jobless Americans.
For example, the leisure and hospitality sector — President Trump’s own industry — had good news: It enjoyed the biggest hiring gains among all sectors, with net payrolls up 1.2 million. But total employment is still historically very low. In fact, total employment in the sector is back where it had been in 1993. That’s better than last month, when the pandemic had wiped out all job gains since the late 1980s, but still not something to celebrate. (The blue line in the chart below shows total jobs in the industry; red dashed line shows you the last time employment was that level.)
The separate survey of households, whose results also appeared in Friday’s jobs report, found that 21.2 percent of the workforce is either unemployed or underemployed (that is, including those who are part time but want to be employed full time, and workers who want to work but are not looking). This is known as the “U-6” rate of labor underutilization.
Even that eye-popping number almost certainly doesn’t reflect the full extent of the pain either.
Because of complications related to the pandemic, the Bureau of Labor Statistics has had some difficulty with proper classification of survey respondents. For example, the bureau said Friday that the number of people who said they were employed but absent from work for “other reasons” (besides illness, vacation, weather or labor dispute) was once again unusually high. This suggests a lot of these people probably should have instead been counted as “unemployed on temporary layoff,” rather than working.
“If the workers who were recorded as employed but absent from work due to ‘other reasons’ (over and above the number absent for other reasons in a typical May) had been classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, the overall unemployment rate would have been about 3 percentage points higher than reported (on a not seasonally adjusted basis),” the report said.
That means an even broader measure of labor underutilization suggests about a quarter of all Americans who wanted to work last month couldn’t find sufficient work.
Here’s the thing that worries me most: that the “green shoots” in Friday’s jobs report could lead federal policymakers to grow complacent.
Already there seems to be little rush to push through another round of fiscal relief, even though enhanced unemployment benefits are set to expire next month and the jobless rate remains in double digits.
States and municipalities (blue, red and purple) are also in severe fiscal crises; last month they laid off some 571,000 employees, after having already axed about a million jobs the previous month. For context, over the several years following the financial crisis, state and local payrolls fell “only” 747,000.
Today, with many locales about to start a new fiscal year, more layoffs are likely to materialize if more federal help does not arrive. This will have knock-on effects throughout the private sector as well. One of the lessons from the Great Recession is that unless the feds stanch the bleeding in states, the path to full recovery will be a long, slow slog. Just look at the sad, flabby green line in my initial “scariest chart” above.
It’s great that the economy seems to have turned a corner — but we still have a lot more work to do, and a lot more workers to employ.
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