WASHINGTON — U.S. employers shed jobs last month for the first time since April, cutting 140,000 positions, clear evidence that the economy is faltering as the viral pandemic tightens its grip on consumers and businesses.
At the same time, the unemployment rate stayed at 6.7%, the first time it hasn't fallen since April.
Friday’s figures from the Labor Department suggest that employers have rehired roughly all the workers they can afford to after having laid off more than 22 million in the spring — the worst such loss on record. With consumer spending barely growing over the past few months, most companies have little incentive to hire. The economy still has nearly 10 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic sent it into a deep recession nearly a year ago having recovered just 56% of those lost.
The pandemic will likely continue to weaken the economy through the winter and perhaps early spring, and further job losses are possible early this year. But many economists, along with the Federal Reserve’s policymakers, say they think that once the coronavirus vaccines are more widely distributed, a broad recovery should take hold in the second half of the year. The incoming Biden administration, along with a now fully Democratic-controlled House and Senate, is also expected to push rescue aid and spending measures that could accelerate growth.
For now, the renewed surge in virus cases, as well as cold weather, has caused millions of consumers to avoid eating out, shopping and traveling. Re-imposed business restrictions have shut down numerous restaurants, bars, and other venues. Economists at TD Securities estimate that more than half the states have restricted gatherings to 10 or fewer people, up from about a quarter in September. New York City and California, among others, placed strict new limits on restaurants last month.
New viral cases continue to set daily records. And on Wednesday, the nation registered more COVID-19 deaths in a single day than ever before — nearly 3,900. The virus is surging in several states, with California, the largest state, hit particularly hard. Skyrocketing caseloads there are threatening to force hospitals to ration care.
Last month, job losses were heavily concentrated among restaurants, bars, hotels, casinos, movie theaters and other entertainment venues. Those sectors shed nearly 500,000 jobs, the most since April, when nationwide shutdowns triggered 7.6 million layoffs. While those sectors will regain some jobs as the economy recovers, changing consumer habits will likely mean that some portion of the lost jobs will be gone for good. Business travel, for example, may not return to pre-pandemic levels.
Most other industries actually added jobs in December, with manufacturers, construction companies and higher-paying professional services such as architecture, engineering and accounting hiring more workers. The huge disparities among industries are sure to exacerbate economic inequality, given that most of the job losses are in lower-paid industries, while middle- and higher-paid workers have largely remained employed.
Andrew Walcott had to furlough four employees at his restaurant, Fusion East in Brooklyn, just before Christmas, after New York state stopped allowing indoor dining. He has shifted to takeout and delivery. Yet customers aren’t even allowed into his restaurant to pick up their food; they have to wait for it outside.
“That’s a hard sell when it’s snowing outside and it’s 25 degrees in New York City,” Walcott said.
In September, his restaurant was allowed to seat diners up to 25% of capacity. With that, along with takeout and delivery and a food truck, his revenue reached 60% of pre-pandemic levels. He brought back half his 15-person staff.
But after last month's layoffs, only Walcott himself, plus a manager and a head chef, with occasional part-time help, are left.
“It’s really horrible,” he said. “You still got to pay rent, you still got to pay insurance, you still got to pay real estate taxes. You still have fixed bills every month.”
Friday's data suggests that the pandemic economy is continuing to benefit some sectors, with transportation and warehousing adding nearly 47,000 jobs. E-commerce firms also ramped up hiring. Delivery jobs rose 37,000.
“We're seeing huge rotation here,” said Brian Bethune, an economist at Tufts University. “The higher-paying goods-producing industries are doing well. Unfortunately, the leisure and hospitality industries are still getting whacked.”
Under financial pressure, consumers as a whole spent less during the holiday shopping season than in previous years, based on debit and credit card data tracked by JPMorgan Chase. Such spending was 6% lower in December compared with a year ago. That was worse than in October, when card spending was down just 2% from the previous year.
Restaurant traffic has also dropped, according to the reservations website OpenTable. Seated dining is down 60% this week compared with a year ago, much worse than two months earlier, when they were down about 35%.
The $900 billion financial aid package that Congress enacted last month should also help propel a recovery, economists say. It will provide a $300-a-week federal jobless benefit on top of an average weekly state benefit of about $320. In addition, millions of Americans stand to receive $600 payments, and the Treasury Department said Thursday that 8 million of those payments were going out this week.
Late Wednesday, Goldman Sachs upgraded its forecast for economic growth this year to a robust 6.4% from its previous estimate of 5.9%. Its upgrade was based in part on the expectation that the Biden administration will implement more stimulus.
Friday’s monthly jobs report, the last of Donald Trump’s presidency, shows that the nation has 3 million fewer jobs than it did four years earlier. That makes Trump the first president since Herbert Hoover (1929-1933), early in the Great Depression, to preside over a net loss of jobs.
All the job losses during the Trump administration occurred after the pandemic struck. Before then, the unemployment rate had fallen to a 50-year low of 3.5%. Still, Trump had pledged to create 25 million jobs in four years.