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April's Job Report Falls Short Of Predictions

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This week's job report was expected to be a blockbuster - turned out to be kind of a dud. Employers added just 266,000 jobs last month. That's far fewer than the month before. The U.S. economy is still more than 8 million jobs shy of where it was before the pandemic. President Biden tried to offer some perspective.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We came to office, we knew we were facing a once-in-a-century pandemic and a once-in-a-generation economic crisis. And we knew this wouldn't be a sprint, it'd be a marathon. Quite frankly, we're moving more rapidly than I thought we would.

SIMON: The public health picture has improved considerably. That's allowing many Americans to spend more freely, to dine out and plan vacations. But the jobs recovery is moving more slowly. We bring in NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Scott, thanks for being with us.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: Where did employers come up short? How worried should people be?

HORSLEY: It's hard to know if this is just a one-month blip or a more lasting slowdown. We did see job cuts last month in some industries that have been doing pretty well, like factories. We know that carmakers have had to idle workers because they can't get the computer chips they need. Grocery stores and delivery services also cut jobs last month. They thrived when we were all cooking at home and ordering online.

Bars and restaurants, on the other hand, had a pretty good month in April. They added 187,000 jobs. I talked to Katie Button, who runs a restaurant called Curate in Asheville, N.C. She says she's booked solid with customers. She might be able to get you a table at 4:30 in the afternoon. And yet Button told me she's actually scaling back her operating hours because it's really hard to find workers.

KATIE BUTTON: I mean, when I look on the job site, there isn't a single business in Asheville that isn't hiring right now. You know, it's more about the competition among everybody that's creating this issue, right? I mean, you can't expect job placement of millions of people to happen overnight.

HORSLEY: Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen says she thinks the jobs recovery will continue, but she warned there are going to be some bumps along the way.

SIMON: Why is there a shortage of workers when millions of people are still unemployed?

HORSLEY: Well, there does seem to be a lot of demand for workers. People who have jobs generally worked more hours last month. Fewer people were working part time who wanted to work full time. The biggest sign of an actual labor shortage would be employers raising wages. There's not a lot of evidence of that, but White House economist Cecilia Rouse says some employers are actually starting to pay more in order to get people.

CECILIA ROUSE: We do see some increase in wages, and that is, I think, to be expected. We're coming out of a very deep recession. And it's an unusual recession. It was caused by a virus. And so it impacted not only the demand for workers, but it's had a profound impact on labor supply.

HORSLEY: Some people are justifiably worried about taking a job when they might be exposed to the coronavirus. Others are busy looking after children because a lot of schools have not yet reopened full time.

SIMON: What about the jobs outlook in the future?

HORSLEY: If the pandemic picture continues to improve, we are likely to see more hiring. As schools reopen, that should make it easier for parents to go back to work. Another factor is those supplemental unemployment benefits the federal government's been paying. They're due to run out at the end of summer. Some employers think that will force more people to start looking for work. It's not clear that's the case, but at least a couple of states plan to cut those benefits off early - Montana and South Carolina. Montana is also going to offer a bonus for people who do go back to work.

SIMON: NPR's Scott Horsley, thanks so much.

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