U.S. job growth picks up, desperate employers boost wages to attract workers

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. employers increased hiring in May and raised wages as they competed for workers, with millions of unemployed Americans still at home because of childcare issues, generous unemployment checks and lingering fears over COVID-19.

Though the pickup in job growth shown in the Labor Department’s closely watched employment report on Friday missed economists’ forecasts, it gave assurance that the recovery from the pandemic recession remained on track.

The economy is being supported by vaccinations against the virus, massive fiscal stimulus and the Federal Reserve’s ultra-easy monetary policy stance. April’s nonfarm payrolls count, which delivered about a quarter of the new jobs economists had forecast, caused handwringing among some analysts and investors that growth was stagnating at a time when inflation was rising.

“There are still a lot of people unemployed, but there does not seem to be a lot of eagerness to work,” said Chris Low, chief economist at FHN Financial in New York. “There would have been many more hires if employers could find more people.”

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 559,000 jobs last month after rising 278,000 in April. That left employment about 7.6 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 650,000 jobs created in May. About 9.3 million people were classified as unemployed last month. There are a record 8.1 million unfilled jobs.

With at least half of the American population fully vaccinated, authorities across the country have lifted virus-related restrictions on businesses, which nearly paralyzed the economy early in the pandemic. But the reopening economy is straining the supply chain.

Though women took 56.2% of the jobs created last month, they constitute a large share of the millions of workers still at home as most school districts have not moved to full-time in-person learning. Nearly 1.8 million women have left the labor force since February 2020.

Despite vaccines being widely accessible, some segments of the population are reluctant to get inoculated, discouraging some people from returning to work. Government-funded benefits, including a $300 weekly unemployment subsidy, are also constraining hiring.

Republican governors in 25 states, accounting for more than 40% of the workforce, are terminating this benefit and other unemployment programs funded by the federal government starting next Saturday.

The expanded benefits end in early September across the country, which together with more people vaccinated and schools fully reopening in the fall, is expected to ease the worker crunch.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said claims that enhanced benefits were discouraging jobseeking were not supported by what workers were telling him.

“Working people across America are eager to work,” said Walsh in a statement. “But workers also told me about the challenges they and their families face, finding affordable childcare, caring for elderly parents and grandparents”

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar fell against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

Graphic: Net change in jobs since Feb. 2020 – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-ECONOMY/UNEMPLOYMENT/gjnvwmajnvw/chart.png


But labor shortages could remain a fixture. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce survey on Friday showed 61% of unemployed people were in no hurry to return to work. Three in 10 said they did not expect to resume working this year, with nearly half of those indicating they never plan to work again.

Average hourly earnings rose a solid 0.5% after shooting up 0.7% in April. That raised the year-on-year increase in wages to 2.0% from 0.4% in April. Wages in the leisure and hospitality sector jumped 1.3%, the third straight month of gains above 1%.

Postings on Poachedjobs.com, a national job board for the restaurant/hospitality industry, are showing restaurants offering as much as $30-$35 per hour for lead line cooks.

Sustained wage growth could strengthen the argument among some economists that higher inflation could persist rather than being transitory as currently envisioned by Fed Chair Jerome Powell. A measure of underlying inflation tracked by the Fed for its 2% target accelerated 3.1% on a year-on-year basis in April, the largest increase since July 1992.

Still, most economists do not expect the U.S. central bank to start withdrawing its massive economic support anytime soon.

“It is unlikely to convince Powell that progress has been ‘substantial’ enough just yet to start signaling tapering,” said Kevin Cummins, chief U.S. economist at NatWest Markets in Stamford, Connecticut.

The average workweek held steady at 34.9 hours. That together with strong wage gains lifted an income proxy 0.9%, matching April’s gain. This bodes well for consumer spending, which could also get a powerful tailwind from the more than $2.3 trillion in excess savings amassed during the pandemic.

Economists are sticking to their forecasts for double-digit growth this quarter.

Last month’s increase in hiring was led by the leisure and hospitality industry, which added 292,000 jobs, with restaurants and bars accounting for 186,000 of those positions. Local government education employment rose by 53,000 jobs as the resumption of in-person learning and other school-related activities in some parts of the country continued.

Manufacturing payrolls increased by 23,000 jobs. But construction employment decreased by 20,000 jobs.

Graphic: Jobs by industry – https://graphics.reuters.com/USA-FED/INDUSTRY/jznpnrzdxpl/chart.png

The unemployment rate fell to 5.8% from 6.1% in April. The drop was in part due to 53,000 people leaving the labor force. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Without this problem, the unemployment rate would have been 6.1% and about 8.5% accounting for those outside the labor force.

The labor force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 61.6% from 61.7% in April. Men dropped out of the labor force last month, while 204,000 women returned.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Andrea Ricci)