Employers continued to bring back furloughed workers last month, but at a far slower pace than in the spring, and millions of Americans remain out of work.
The U.S. economy added 1.4 million jobs in August, the Labor Department said Friday, down from 1.7 million in July and down sharply from the 4.8 million added in June. Payrolls are still more than 11 million jobs below their pre-pandemic level.
The unemployment rate fell to 8.4 %, down significantly from 14.7 % in April and 10.2 % in July. The drop brings the rate below the peak of the last recession a decade ago, when unemployment briefly hit 10 %, but joblessness is still higher than the peak of many past recessions.
“We still have a long way to go,” said Beth Ann Bovino, chief U.S. economist for S&P Global.
The figure for August job growth was buoyed by the hiring of close to 240,000 temporary workers for the 2020 census, most of whom will be laid off when census canvassing ends later this month. Private-sector payrolls, which were not affected by the census hires, rose by one million in August, down from 1.5 million in July.
The report on Friday provides some of the first clear data on the state of the economy as emergency federal spending winds down, including a $600 weekly supplement to unemployment benefits that helped keep many households afloat early in the pandemic. Economists warn that without that supplement, which expired at the end of July, millions of families will struggle to pay rent and buy food, reining in the broader economy.
But because the August jobs data was collected early in the month, it may not reflect the full impact of the loss of benefits, economists warn. That quirk of the calendar could have political ramifications: The relatively solid jobs report could ease pressure on Congress to agree on a new round of emergency spending.
“If the labour market data continue to hold, if we don’t see a big destruction to consumer spending on the back of the loss of the unemployment benefits, that reduces the sense of urgency that something needs to be done prior to the election,” said Michelle Meyer, head of U.S. economics for Bank of America.
Economists warn that would set the stage for a big drop in spending in the fall, leading to more job losses and a wave of small-business failures. Already, major corporations such as American Airlines have announced they are laying off more workers or, as in the case of the department store stalwart Lord & Taylor, going out of business entirely.
“I am more concerned about where the economy is now than I was in April,” said Martha Gimbel, an economist and labour market expert at Schmidt Futures, a philanthropic initiative. “In April, it was fixable. We’re just letting the scars build up now.”