U.S. employers resumed hiring in January, but the weak pace of job gains suggested a long road remains for the recovery.
The U.S. economy added 49,000 jobs last month. The small gain came after payrolls fell steeply in December, the first decline since the coronavirus pandemic triggered business shutdowns last spring. The unemployment rate fell to 6.3% in January from 6.7% a month earlier, in part reflecting fewer people searching for jobs.
“The recovery is only stumbling along at this point,” said Sarah House, senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities. “Yes, we managed to eke out a gain, but we’re still 9.9 million jobs shy of where we were back in February” of last year before the pandemic hit hard, she said.
Jobs grew strongly in business and professional services, mainly in temporary help roles, the Labor Department said in its January report on U.S. employment. Many sectors, though, lost jobs last month. The leisure and hospitality sector shed 61,000 jobs, following a steep decline of 536,000 in December. Retailers and warehouses cut jobs in January after adding jobs strongly over the holidays.
The unemployment rate decline in January was driven by two factors. More people dropped out of the labor force—meaning they weren’t actively looking for a job and may have grown frustrated with their employment prospects. Also, the number of people reporting themselves as employed increased, consistent with a generally upward trend in hiring since last spring.
U.S. stocks rose after the jobs figures were released, as investors considered whether lackluster January gains could improve the chance of additional federal pandemic relief.
met Friday with top House Democrats ahead of a vote to advance his $1.9 trillion relief package, following an earlier Senate vote. Republicans have pressed for a smaller plan.
“It’s very clear our economy is still in trouble,” Mr. Biden said Friday, referencing the millions of people out of work.
A separate Commerce Department report showed the U.S. trade balance with China improved last year, narrowing by 10% to $310.08 billion as the U.S. exported more goods such as soybeans, crude oil, corn and cotton to the country. China still accounts for nearly half of the overall U.S. trade deficit, and friction over trade between the two countries is expected to continue in the Biden administration.
The broader economic recovery stalled significantly this winter. Unemployment claims, a proxy for layoffs, have remained above pre-pandemic levels. Consumers cut back on spending, as some were wary of leaving their homes as virus cases surged. Others wanted to shop and dine out, but had limited options.
Late last year, many states and local governments mandated that businesses like restaurants close or reduce operations to combat rising numbers of virus cases. Some places have recently loosened those restrictions. Throughout much of the recovery, positive areas have included manufacturing, with companies reporting increased demand for goods and new hiring, and housing, where low interest rates and the pandemic have boosted home sales.
Economists see the winter lull as temporary. They expect growth to pick up later this year as more people get vaccinated and business restrictions further ease. Many economists also say the economy could benefit from further government stimulus.
Employment at restaurants and bars has been particularly hard hit this winter. The sector cut jobs in January for the third straight month, though last month’s decline was much less steep than December’s. Warmer temperatures will likely help lift the industry in the coming months.
“When the sun comes out down here, and we can get some people out on some patios, we’re going to do a lot better,” said Chris Hall, operating partner for an Atlanta-area restaurant group that includes a deli, a bar, a contemporary American restaurant and a pizza place.
Mr. Hall said his restaurants rehired workers after reopening from temporary closures last spring, but overall staffing levels have hovered near 75% of pre-coronavirus levels since the summer.
“This winter has gotten scary,” he said. The restaurants’ patios are closed and customers remain cautious to dine out amid high virus counts, Mr. Hall said. He recently sent out a message to a group of “die-hard” customers, encouraging them to come support business during a tough winter for sales.
A strong community of customers has helped Mr. Hall’s restaurants survive the pandemic so far, he added.
Friday’s report showed that hiring at public schools and colleges was a bright spot in January, adding a combined 85,000 jobs. Private schools added 34,000 jobs. The Labor Department noted that those figures could be distorted because the pandemic has caused schools to divert from their normal hiring patterns.
Manufacturing, warehousing and construction lost jobs in January. Sectors that build and deliver goods have fared well throughout much of the pandemic but are in some cases confronting labor shortages.
Consumers have been ramping up orders of items to spruce up their homes, aiding growth at United Solutions Inc. The 665-person manufacturer produces trash and recycling bins, plastic storage and paint buckets out of plants in Massachusetts and Mississippi.
It hired 56 workers in January and is seeking to add 100 more employees to its warehouse and factory floors to meet customer demand, said David Reilly, chief executive of the manufacturer.
“We’re just trying everywhere to find the right people,” Mr. Reilly said. “It’s a challenge.”
To attract and retain workers, the company raised starting wages for factory workers by $2 over the past six months to $14 an hour. It is airing job ads on the radio and participating in virtual job fairs. The company is also converting many temporary workers—formerly the bulk of its workforce—to permanent positions.
Companies might struggle to find workers in part because the share of people seeking work remains depressed. The labor-force participation rate was 61.4% in January, down from 63.3% in February 2020, before the virus hit. Some people aren’t looking for work out of fear of contracting the virus. Others are burdened by increased child-care responsibilities or discouraged by limited job opportunities.
The U.S. continues to face challenges to achieving a full economic recovery. More-transmissible variants of Covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, could keep businesses closed longer. Nearly a quarter of unvaccinated adults said in a Census Bureau survey they won’t get the Covid-19 vaccine, potentially delaying herd-immunity prospects and business reopenings.
Many workers are facing long spells of unemployment. Just over four million people were out of work for 27 weeks or longer in January, the Labor Department said, compared with nearly 1.2 million a year ago. Others who lost their jobs earlier in the virus crisis have regained employment, but at much lower wages.
Danielle Robillard, 55 years old, of Troutdale, Ore., was furloughed as a team lead at a corporate travel agency in April. Her job loss turned permanent in September, when she opted to take a company severance package.
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She ramped up her job search and was hired in October as an associate expert at
where she answers customers’ questions on phone bills and payment plans. Her new position pays $14.75 an hour, or about half her previous wage, leaving her stretched financially.
“If it was enough to pay my mortgage, I wouldn’t be so terrified,” Ms. Robillard said. Her husband works as a restaurant cook, which means his employment is insecure until vaccines are widely distributed, she added.
Ms. Robillard continues to seek a new job both within and outside of her current company. “The problem is that half the country is looking for a job,” she said.
—Eric Morath contributed to this article.
Write to Sarah Chaney Cambon at email@example.com
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