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Labor Department Reports U.S. Job Market Improvements In March

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Employers added more than 900,000 jobs in March as the public health outlook improved and the federal government pumped more money into people's pockets. President Biden celebrated the jobs tally as he spoke to reporters this morning at the White House.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Credit for this progress belongs not to me, but to the American people, hardworking women and men who have struggled through this pandemic, never given up and are determined to get the country back on track.

CORNISH: Biden also cautioned that both the economic gains and the progress against the pandemic could be reversed if people aren't careful. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And, Scott, these are - these gains were the strongest that we've seen since last August. Job growth in January and February apparently were revised upwards. What are you learning about this?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Hiring's been thawing out from a winter freeze over the last three months, Audie. And by March, it was really cooking. This snapshot was taken in the middle of the month, just around the time those $1,400 relief payments started showing up in people's bank accounts, so people had money to spend. And with more folks getting vaccinated and COVID restrictions being relaxed, more people were eating out, shopping, maybe going to the movies.

To keep up with that increased traffic, bars and restaurants added 176,000 new workers last month. And Raphael Bostic, who heads the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta, says we could see similar gains in the months to come.

RAPHAEL BOSTIC: I know for me, I'm looking forward to being able to be outside and talking to people and seeing them in person. I've talked to a number of businesses where they're saying they're starting to see bookings that are approaching where they were pre-COVID, and in some instances, even exceeding that.

HORSLEY: Construction crews also did a lot of hiring last month after a cold weather slump in February. And factories are really humming as well.

CORNISH: Unemployment actually fell to 6%, but we know there has been a lot of variation among different communities. Is that still the case?

HORSLEY: It is. Unemployment among African Americans and Latinos is still higher than average. But the gap with white workers did narrow last month, which is a good sign. We also saw job gains in March for women, who've been particularly hard-hit during the recession. Of course, restaurants and bars employ a lot of women. Schools also added a lot of workers last month. And White House economist Cecilia Rouse says that's doubly good for women's employment.

CECILIA ROUSE: I think with schools reopening, you see more, you know, disproportionately women who are employed in those sectors. And it also is allowing women to start to think about participating in the labor force again.

HORSLEY: We know that a lot of women had to drop out of the workforce last year to look after kids who were studying at home. So as more students go back to the classroom, more of those moms can go back to work

CORNISH: For a little more context, what do these numbers mean in terms of kind of crawling out of this pandemic economy?

HORSLEY: Well, we need another nine or 10 months just like March to get back to where we were before the pandemic. We're still down more than 8 million jobs from where we started. And how fast that happens is going to depend a lot on what happens with the pandemic. You know, in the last couple weeks, we've seen a 20% increase in new coronavirus infections. President Biden offered a warning today. He said too many people are acting like the pandemic is over when it's not.

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BIDEN: Don't give back the progress we've all so - fought so hard to achieve. We need to finish this job. We need every American to buckle down and keep their guard up in this homestretch.

HORSLEY: Audie, beating the pandemic is still the best prescription for keeping families healthy and for many more months of healthy job growth as well.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thanks for your reporting, Scott.

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