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Economy

U.S. Employers Added Fewer Jobs In April Than Forecasted

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The recovery of the nation's job market hit a speed bump last month. U.S. employers added just 266,000 jobs in April. That is far fewer than forecasters were expecting. Speaking to reporters at the White House, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen sounded confident that the rebound will continue, but she acknowledged that there will be some ups and downs along the way.

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JANET YELLEN: We knew this would not be a hundred-day battle. And today's jobs report underscores the long haul climb back to recovery.

SHAPIRO: The country has yet to recover more than 8 million jobs that were lost during the pandemic. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley joins us now to explain.

Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: In ordinary times, a month when more than a quarter million people found work would be pretty good, but it was really disappointing today. Explain what went wrong.

HORSLEY: More than one economist used the phrase head scratcher to describe this report today because so many of the other signals we've been getting during the spring suggested April would be a blockbuster month for hiring. You know, more Americans have been getting vaccinated. They've been planning vacations. They're going to ball games. They're doing all the things they haven't been able to do for much of the last year. I talked to Jeff Lobdell, who runs 18 restaurants in Michigan. He's seen a big uptick in business.

JEFF LOBDELL: Oh, for sure. There's been a lot of pent-up demand, and people are wanting to go out. I mean, restaurants are the community gathering places not only just to go out and get a meal but to see those neighbors meeting in your neighborhood place. People really miss that.

HORSLEY: And that was expected to translate to a lot more jobs. Now, restaurants and bars did add nearly 200,000 workers last month. But other parts of the economy lost jobs, including grocery stores and delivery services, which thrived during the pandemic. There were also fewer factory jobs, mostly because carmakers have not been able to get the computer chips they need. And then we've heard complaints from some employers who say they do have more job openings. They just haven't been able to find workers to fill them.

SHAPIRO: How do you square that when we know there are millions of people who are still out of work?

HORSLEY: Not everyone is vaccinated yet, and many workers are understandably nervous about going back to work in jobs where they might run the risk of getting infected. You also have lots of parents whose kids are not yet back in school full time. Lobdell says he has rehired about 250 people at his restaurants since things bottomed out last year, but he's got another 200 job openings he hasn't been able to fill.

LOBDELL: In the last six months, our hourly wages have gone up by about, on average, $2.50 or $3 an hour. We're offering pandemic pay, which is an extra pay for our line cooks from now through Labor Day. So we're doing as much as we can to keep our staff and to lure new crew people to come back in and work with us.

HORSLEY: Today's report does show an uptick in wages, although not so big as to suggest a really widespread worker shortage.

SHAPIRO: So the unemployment rate actually inched up to 6.1%. Is that worrisome?

HORSLEY: You know, more than 400,000 people entered the workforce last month. That's actually encouraging even if not all of them found jobs right away. But all those new workers were men. The number of women in the workforce actually shrank in April, and that's been a trend throughout this pandemic. Secretary Yellen says the U.S. needs to make it easier for both women and men who are trying to juggle work and family responsibilities.

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YELLEN: Our policy making has not counted for the fact that people's work lives and their personal lives are inextricably linked. And if one suffers, so does the other.

HORSLEY: She notes that of the 4.2 million women who left the workforce during the pandemic, Ari, nearly 2 million have not yet returned. And obviously that's a drag on their family budgets. It's also a drag on the country's economic potential.

SHAPIRO: A couple of states have announced plans to cut back on unemployment benefits in the coming months. Do you think that's likely to have an effect on the job market?

HORSLEY: It's hard to know. Some employers do complain that the pandemic unemployment benefits, including the extra $300 a week that the federal government's been paying, are discouraging people from looking for jobs. Academic researchers have not found much evidence of that. But Montana and South Carolina plan to cut those benefits off at the end of June in an effort to sort of prod people back into the workforce. The benefits are set to expire nationwide a couple of months later, so we'll get a little experiment here.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.