job openings is above the national average.

She worked in agricultural marketing until about a decade ago, when she decided to stay home with her children. When she started looking for a job again, she found nothing comparable available in the region, and she has been reluctant to switch fields while the family can get by on her husband’s income.

Increasingly, though, she is open to becoming a paralegal, or even working in restaurants, where wages have risen 18.6 percent — not adjusted for inflation — since the beginning of the pandemic.

“I would start bartending as well, or even going back to being wait staff, because there’s something appealing about just showing up, doing a thing, and leaving,” said Ms. Buckley, who is 52. “Everything’s on the table.”

Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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Why the January Jobs Report May Disappoint, and Is Sure to Perplex

The January jobs report is arriving at a critical time for the U.S. economy. Inflation is rising. The pandemic is still taking a toll. And the Federal Reserve is trying to decide how best to steer the economy through a swirl of competing threats.

Unfortunately, the data, which the Labor Department will release on Friday, is unlikely to provide a clear guide.

A slew of measurement issues and data quirks will make it hard to assess exactly how the latest coronavirus wave has affected workers and businesses, or to gauge the underlying health of the labor market.

“It’s going to be a mess,” said Skanda Amarnath, executive director of Employ America, a research group.

on Twitter and in conversations with reporters that a weak January jobs number would not necessarily be a sign of a sustained slowdown.

Economists generally agree. Coronavirus cases have already begun to fall in most of the country, and there is little evidence so far that the latest wave caused lasting economic damage. Layoffs have not spiked, as they did earlier in the pandemic, and employers continue to post job openings.

“You could have the possibility of a payroll number that looks really truly horrendous, but you’re pulling on a rubber band,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research for the job site Indeed. “Things could bounce back really quickly.”

loss of purchasing power over time, meaning your dollar will not go as far tomorrow as it did today. It is typically expressed as the annual change in prices for everyday goods and services such as food, furniture, apparel, transportation and toys.

Economists typically pay more attention to the survey of businesses, which is larger and seen as more reliable. But some say they will be paying closer attention than usual this month to the data from the survey of households, because it will do a better job of distinguishing between temporary absences and more lasting effects from Omicron, such as layoffs or postponed expansions.

But economists have also cautioned not to minimize the impact that even temporary absences from work could have on families and the economy, especially now that the government is no longer offering expanded unemployment benefits and other aid.

“There isn’t that much Covid relief funding sloshing about anymore, so absences from work may actually reflect a meaningful decline in income,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at the employment site ZipRecruiter.

Even in normal times, January jobs data can be tough to interpret. Retailers, shippers and other companies every year lay off hundreds of thousands of temporary workers hired during the holiday season. Government statisticians adjust the data to account for those seasonal patterns, but that process is imperfect. January is also the month each year when the Labor Department incorporates long-run revisions and other updates to its estimates.

“January is a messy month as it is,” Mr. Amarnath said.

This year, it could be extra messy because the pandemic has disrupted normal seasonal patterns. The labor shortage led some companies to hire permanent workers instead of short-term seasonal help during the holidays; others may have retained temporary workers longer than planned to cover for employees who were out sick. If that results in fewer layoffs than usual, the government’s seasonal adjustment formula will interpret that continued employment as an increase.

Other numbers could also be deceptive. The unemployment rate, for example, could fall even if hiring slowed. That is because the government considers people unemployed only if they are actively searching for work, and the spike in Covid cases may have led some to suspend their job searches.

Data on average hourly earnings could also be skewed because it is based on the payroll data — people who aren’t on payrolls aren’t counted in the average at all. Low-wage workers were probably the most likely to be missing from payrolls last month, since higher-wage workers are more likely to have access to paid sick leave. That could lead to an artificial — and temporary — jump in average earnings when policymakers at the Fed are watching wage data for hints about inflation.

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October 2021 Jobs Report: Gain of 531,000 Offers Brighter Picture

“It’s a euphemism, but something the Fed takes very seriously,” said Diane Swonk, the chief economist at the accounting firm Grant Thornton. If the current surge in prices does not abate by early next year, and if both internal and external pressure to prioritize price stability takes precedence, then “patience may run out sooner than people think,” she said — and sooner than Mr. Powell, the Fed chair, would like.

Hiring has seesawed this year along with the pandemic, especially in vulnerable sectors like hospitality and retail, where workers must be face-to-face with customers. Because many white-collar employees can work remotely, they have consistently fared better.

In October, leisure and hospitality employment rose by 164,000, while professional and business services added 100,000 jobs. Despite the supply chain shortages, manufacturers hired 60,000 workers, and transportation and warehousing saw a jump of 54,000.

“We are optimistic,” said Lou Rassey, the co-founder and chief executive of Fast Radius, a Chicago-based company that develops software for manufacturers and makes components for items like medical devices and electric vehicles.

Fast Radius brought aboard about 25 people last month, including factory workers, software developers and technologists. It has actually benefited from the knots in global supply chains. In view of all the trouble that can arise when one link in a chain goes haywire, some U.S.-based industrial customers are moving production closer to home.

“We can produce parts locally that traditionally were made halfway around the world,” Mr. Rassey said.

Jeanna Smialek, Zolan Kanno-Youngs and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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September 2021 Jobs Report Shows Gain of Just 194,000 as Delta Persisted

Job growth slowed to the year’s weakest pace last month as the latest coronavirus wave dashed hopes of an imminent return to normal for the U.S. economy.

Employers added just 194,000 jobs in September, the Labor Department said Friday, down from 366,000 in August — and far below the increase of more than one million in July, before the highly contagious Delta variant led to a spike in coronavirus cases across much of the country. Leisure and hospitality businesses, a main driver of job growth earlier this year, added fewer than 100,000 jobs for the second straight month.

“Employment is slowing when it should be picking up because we’re still on the course set by the virus,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

for the Federal Reserve, which is weighing when to begin pulling back support for the economy.

It is possible that the recent slowdown is a Delta-driven blip and will soon fade — or, indeed, may already be largely in the past. The data released on Friday was collected in mid-September, when the Delta wave was near its peak. Since then, cases and hospitalizations have fallen in much of the country, and more timely data from private-sector sources suggests that economic activity has begun to rebound. If those trends continue, people on the sidelines could return to the labor force, and hiring should begin to pick up.

“This report is a glance in the rearview mirror,” said Daniel Zhao, an economist at the career site Glassdoor. “There should be some optimism that there should be a reacceleration in October.”

But it is also possible that the damage done by the pandemic will take longer to heal than economists had hoped. Supply-chain disruptions have been unexpectedly persistent, and shifts in consumer behavior during the pandemic may not soon reverse. In surveys, many workers say they are reconsidering their priorities and do not want to return to their old ways of working.

Expanded unemployment benefits, which many businesses blamed for discouraging people from looking for work, ended nationwide early last month. Schools reopened in person in much of the country, which should have made it easier for parents to return to work. Rising vaccination rates were meant to make reluctant workers feel safe enough to resume their job searches. As recently as August, many economists circled September as the month when workers would flood back into the job market.

Instead, the labor force shrank by nearly 200,000 people. The pandemic’s resurgence delayed office reopenings, disrupted the start of the school year and made some people reluctant to accept jobs requiring face-to-face interaction. At the same time, preliminary evidence suggests that the cutoff in unemployment benefits has done little to push people back to work.

“I am a little bit puzzled, to be honest,” said Aneta Markowska, chief financial economist for the investment bank Jefferies. “We all waited for September for this big flurry of hiring on the premise that unemployment benefits and school reopening would bring people back to the labor force. And it just doesn’t seem like we’re seeing that.”

Ms. Markowska said more people might begin to look for work as the Delta variant eased and as they depleted savings accumulated earlier in the pandemic. But some people have retired early or have found other ways to make ends meet and may be slow to return to the labor force, if they come back at all.

In the meantime, people available to work are enjoying a rare moment of leverage. Average earnings rose 19 cents an hour in September and are up more than $1 an hour over the last year, after a series of strong monthly gains. Pay has risen even faster in some low-wage sectors.

Many businesses are finding that higher wages alone aren’t enough to attract workers, said Becky Frankiewicz, president of the Manpower Group, a staffing firm. After years of expecting employees to work whenever they were needed — often with no set schedule and little notice — companies are finding that workers are now setting the terms.

“They get to choose when, where and in what duration they’re working,” Ms. Frankiewicz said. “That is a role reversal. That is a structural change in the workers’ economy.”

Arizmendi Bakery, a cooperative in San Rafael, Calif., recently raised its wages by $3 an hour, by far the biggest increase in its history. But it is still struggling to attract applicants heading into the crucial holiday season.

“There are many, many, many more businesses hiring than there used to be, so we’re competing with many other businesses that we weren’t competing with before,” said Natalie Baddorf, a baker and one of the owners.

The bakery has managed to hire a few people, including one who began this week. But other workers have given their notice to leave. The bakery, which has been operating on reduced hours since the pandemic began, now has enough business to return to its original hours, but cannot find enough labor to do so.

“We’re talking about cloning ourselves,” Ms. Baddorf said.

Jeanna Smialek and Jim Tankersley contributed reporting.

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100 Isn’t a Magic Number, So Why Is It Part of the Vaccine Mandate?

But if you want a small-business loan? There, the government’s definition is far more expansive. The Small Business Administration, which orchestrated the popular Paycheck Protection Program, generally considers any company with fewer than 500 employees a “small” one. Unless you’re in one of dozens of industries with exceptions, which are detailed in a 49-page document that can seem almost whimsical in its divisions. A company that mines gold ore counts as small if it has up to 1,500 employees, but the limit falls to 750 for iron miners and just 250 for those that extract silver.

One thing about tiny companies is clear: They vastly outnumber their bigger brethren. The government estimates that there are nearly 32 million small businesses in America. Most have no employees beyond the owner. Their ranks include practitioners of nearly every profession — solo lawyers and accountants, Uber drivers, tutors, gig-working delivery cyclists, artists and writers and musicians and millions of salaried workers with side hustles.

Weed out those businesses and you’re left with six million employer firms, each with a payroll ranging from a handful of people to a few hundred. Only 20,000 companies in the country, according to data from the Census Bureau, are truly large businesses, with 500 or more employees.

To entrepreneurs in that squishy middle, the line between being a little business and a big one can feel pretty fuzzy. Twenty years ago, Franz Spielvogel joined Laughing Planet, which was at the time a single-location fast-casual cafe in Portland, Ore. It was a hit, so he and his business partner opened another Laughing Planet. Then another. Today, Mr. Spielvogel runs 15 locations in three states, with 224 workers.

Mr. Spielvogel said his mini-chain feels like a collection of neighborhood spots, which he likes. “We’re not Sweetgreen,” he said. “We’re not saying, ‘Let’s do 100 stores in the next six months.’ That’s not our mission.”

Being a midsize company can have some pain points, like having a limited legal and human resources infrastructure to handle the thicket of regulations that come with employing hundreds of people. But Mr. Spielvogel enjoys running a company small enough that it is able to preserve that first shop’s ethos and corporate culture. He’s unfazed — and honestly somewhat relieved, he said — by the new vaccination-or-testing mandate. He has been trying to coax his staff to get vaccinated by offering paid time off for each shot, and he hopes a mandate will convince his last few holdouts.

Even some teeny companies are eager to embrace it. Aaron Seyedian, the founder of Well-Paid Maids in Washington, said he wished the mandate extended to companies like his, which has 17 people.

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June Jobs Report Shows an 850,000 Gain, Better Than Expected

Anxieties over a lag in hiring lifted on Friday as the government reported that employers added 850,000 workers in June, the largest monthly gain since last summer.

Wages jumped for the third month in a row, a sign that employers are trying to attract applicants with higher pay and that workers are gaining bargaining power.

Rising Covid-19 vaccination rates and a growing appetite for travel, dining out, celebrations and entertainment gave a particular boost to leisure and hospitality businesses. The biggest chunk of June’s gains — 343,000 — could be found there.

accelerated rate of early retirements means that some of those workers will never come back.

“Today there are more job openings than before the pandemic and fewer people in the labor force,” said Becky Frankiewicz, president of the staffing company ManpowerGroup North America. “The single defining challenge for employers is enticing American workers back to the work force.”

The report follows several promising economic developments this week. Consumer confidence, which surged in June, is at its highest point since the pandemic’s onset last year. Stocks closed out the first half of the year at record highs. And the Congressional Budget Office said Thursday that the economy was on track to recover all the jobs lost in the pandemic by the middle of next year.

But economists cautioned against trying to divine the complex currents crisscrossing the labor market from a single month’s data, particularly given how much the pandemic has disrupted employment patterns.

may reflect smaller-than-expected layoffs rather than big gains. Over a longer period, employment in both public and private education remains significantly below its prepandemic level.

remarks from the White House.

The June figures are unlikely to allay the concerns of small-business owners and managers who complain about the difficulty finding workers. Nearly half report that they cannot fill openings, according to a recent survey by the National Federation of Independent Business.

The competition for workers has pushed up wages. Average hourly earnings climbed 3.6 percent in the year through June and 0.3 percent over the month. Low-wage workers seem to be the biggest beneficiaries of the bump in pay.

Ms. Frankiewicz of ManpowerGroup said the rise of “superemployers” like Amazon and Walmart was making it even more difficult for small and medium-size businesses to attract workers. In the summer of 2019, the top 25 employers had 10 percent of the open jobs, she said, while “today 10 employers do.”

moved to end distribution of federal pandemic-related jobless benefits even though they are funded until September, arguing that the assistance — including a $300 weekly supplement — was discouraging people from returning to work.

The latest jobs report did not reflect the cutoff’s impact because the government surveys were completed before any states ended benefits.

Staffing firms said they had not seen a pickup in job searches or hiring in states that have since withdrawn from the federal jobless programs.

Indeed surveyed 5,000 people in and out of the labor force and found that child care responsibilities, health concerns, vaccination rates and a financial cushion — from savings or public assistance — had all affected the number looking for work. Many employers are desperate to hire, but only 10 percent of workers surveyed said they were urgently seeking a job.

And even among that group, 20 percent said they didn’t want to take a position immediately.

Aside from ever-present concerns about pay and benefits, workers are particularly interested in jobs that allow them to work remotely at least some of the time. In a survey of more than 1,200 people by the staffing company Randstad, roughly half said they preferred a flexible work arrangement that didn’t require them to be on site full time.

Some employers are getting creative with work arrangements in response, said Karen Fichuk, chief executive of Randstad North America. One employer changed the standard shift to match the bus schedule so employees could get to work more easily. Others adjusted hours to make it easier for parents with child care demands.

Health and safety concerns are also on the minds of workers whose jobs require face-to-face interactions, the survey found.

Black and Hispanic workers, who were disproportionately affected by the coronavirus and by job losses, are having trouble regaining their foothold. “The Black unemployment rate is still exceptionally high,” at 9.2 percent compared with 5.2 percent for white workers, said Michelle Holder, an economist at John Jay College in New York.

One factor in the elevated Black jobless rate is that the ranks of Black workers employed or seeking jobs grew sharply last month. But participation in the labor force remains lower than it was before the pandemic among all major racial and ethnic groups.

Professor Holder said some people were reluctant to rejoin the labor force because of the quality and the pay of the work available.

“We don’t have a shortage of people to work,” she said. “What we don’t have are decent jobs.”

Jeanna Smialek and Ben Casselman contributed reporting.

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Unemployment claims report will shed new light on the economy.

The latest update on the labor market is scheduled to arrive Thursday morning when the government releases its weekly report on jobless claims.

Analysts surveyed by Bloomberg expect that the number of new claims filed will fall slightly from the previous week.

Last week, the Labor Department reported that 505,000 workers filed first-time claims for state benefits in the week that ended May 1. An additional 101,000 new claims were filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, part-timers and others who do not routinely qualify for state benefits. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

The labor market is struggling to return to normal after more than a year of being whipsawed by the pandemic. Restrictions are lifting, businesses are reopening and job listings are on the upswing. Hiring increased in April but at a slower pace than anticipated.

complained of having trouble finding workers. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce and several Republican governors have asserted that a temporary $300-a-week federal unemployment supplement has made workers reluctant to return to the job.

The U.S. Labor Department said that as of Wednesday, six states — Iowa, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, North Dakota and South Carolina — had notified the department that they were terminating federal pandemic-related unemployment benefits next month.

The unemployment rates in those states in March, the latest month for which data is available, ranged from 3.7 percent in Iowa to 6.3 percent in Mississippi.

A handful of other states with Republican governors, including Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Wyoming and Idaho, have said they also planned to withdraw from the federal program.

38,000 new cases being reported each day and 600 Covid-related deaths. Less than half the population is fully vaccinated.

There is halting progress from employers as well, as businesses continually update their assessment of costs and customer demand. They are wary of locking themselves in to hiring more workers or raising pay when there is so much uncertainty swirling.

Nationwide, the unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, and there are 8.2 million fewer jobs than in February 2020.

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Biden Defends Unemployment Benefits, Provided Workers Accept Job Offers

WASHINGTON — President Biden ordered the Labor Department on Monday to ensure that unemployed Americans cannot draw enhanced federal jobless benefits if they turn down a suitable job offer, even as he rejected claims by Republicans that his weekly unemployment bonus is undermining efforts to get millions of Americans back to work.

Stung from a weekend of criticism over a disappointing April jobs report, Mr. Biden struck a defiant tone, seeking to make clear that he expects workers to return to jobs if they are available, while defending his signature economic policy effort thus far and blaming corporate America, in part, for not doing more to entice people to go back to work.

The president told reporters at the White House that child care constraints, school closures and fears of contracting the coronavirus had hindered job creation last month, and he challenged companies to help workers gain access to vaccines and to raise their pay.

“The last Congress, before I became president, gave businesses over $1.4 trillion in Covid relief,” Mr. Biden said. “Congress may have approved that money, but let’s be clear: The money came from the American people, and it went from the American people to American businesses, many of them big businesses, to help them get through this pandemic and keep their doors open.”

legal confrontation over whether states can cut taxes after taking relief money and using it to solidify their budgets.

the guidance said.

Treasury and White House officials made clear that they would scrutinize how the funds were being used to ensure that state budgets were not being gamed to violate the intent of the law. A new recovery office at the Treasury Department will coordinate with states to help determine if their policies are in line with conditions set forth in the law.

The relief money also cannot be paid into state pension funds to reduce unfunded liabilities.

A White House official would not comment on whether initiatives like Montana’s return-to-work bonuses could be funded using relief money. States and cities are being given broad discretion on how they can use the money, which is intended to replace public sector revenue that was lost during the pandemic; to provide extra pay for essential workers; and to be invested in sewer, water and broadband infrastructure.

Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen’s guidance failed to clarify the matter.

“Arizona should not be put in a position of losing billions of dollars because the federal government wants to commandeer states’ tax policies,” Mr. Brnovich said.

The allocation of the funds is also likely to be a contentious matter as the money starts to flow. Some states have complained that states that managed the pandemic well are essentially being penalized because the formula for awarding aid is based on state unemployment rates.

The Treasury Department said on Monday that the states that were hardest hit economically by the pandemic would also get their money faster.

Local governments will generally receive half of the money this month and the rest next year. But states that currently have a net increase in unemployment of more than two percentage points since February 2020 will get the funds in a lump sum right away.

Officials also said Monday that the administration would issue new guidelines meant to speed money from the recovery act to help child care centers reopen, and that the Labor Department would highlight a program that allows some unemployed workers to accept offers of part-time jobs without losing access to the federally supplemented benefits.

Mr. Biden said that the efforts would help the economy recover — and that the rebound from recession remained on track.

“Let’s be clear: Our economic plan is working,” he said. But he said recovery would not always prove to be easy or even. “Some months will exceed expectations,” he said, “others will fall short.”

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Jobs Report April 2021: U.S. Added 266,000 Positions as Hiring Slowed

Despite the falloff in applicants, he is confident the company will get the workers it needs. “Our funnel hasn’t been filling as fast but there’s been no major service disruptions,” he said.

Gail Myer, whose family owns six hotels in Branson, Mo., has been having more trouble. “I talk to people all over the country on a regular basis in the hospitality industry, and the No. 1 topic of discussion is shortage of labor,” he said.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Myer said, there were about 150 full-time employees at his six hotels, but now staffing is down about 15 percent. Jobs at Myer Hospitality for housekeepers, breakfast attendants and receptionists are advertised as paying $12.75 to $14 an hour, plus benefits and a $500 signing bonus.

Returning to work is not yet an option for Lauren Fine, an education consultant in Denver. Ms. Fine, who is single and has a toddler, lost her job early in the pandemic. She initially collected unemployment benefits, but for the last nine months she has cobbled together jobs like tutoring and contract work.

She said she has been making less than half of her previous salary, creating something of an inescapable cycle: She cannot afford to send her son to day care for more than two days a week, and her child-care responsibilities are preventing her from taking a full-time job. In addition, she said, she has an autoimmune illness, making the possibility of contracting Covid-19 in the workplace especially harrowing.

“I like to say it’s just like spinning plates,” she said. Ms. Fine is considering giving up looking for a full-time job for the next year, until her son is old enough to attend school five days a week.

Jillian Melton worked for six years at a restaurant in Memphis before the pandemic, but she said the danger of infection coupled with low pay and babysitter costs make working not worth the risk right now. She is at home caring for her five children, including one with asthma, and her 93-year-old grandmother.

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New state unemployment claims fall sharply.

Unemployment filings fell again last week as the improving public health situation and the easing of pandemic-related restrictions allowed the labor market to continue its gradual return to normal.

About 505,000 people filed first-time applications for state jobless benefits, the Labor Department said Thursday, down more than 100,000 from a week earlier. In addition, 101,000 people filed for Pandemic Unemployment Assistance, a federal program covering freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t qualify for regular benefits. Neither figure is seasonally adjusted.

Applications for unemployment benefits remain high by historical standards, but they have fallen significantly in recent weeks after progress stalled in the fall and winter. Weekly filings for state benefits, which peaked at more than six million last spring, fell below 700,000 for the first time in late March and have now been below that level for four straight weeks.

“In the last few weeks we’ve seen a pretty dramatic improvement in the claims data, and I think that does signal that there’s been an acceleration in the labor market recovery in April,” said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at the employment site Glassdoor.

pull out of a federal program offering enhanced benefits to unemployed workers and would instead pay a $1,200 bonus to recipients when they found new jobs.

Economic research has found that unemployment benefits can reduce the intensity with which workers search for jobs. But most studies find that the impact on the overall labor market is small, especially when unemployment is high. And Mr. Zhao and other economists say there are other reasons that labor supply might be rebounding more slowly than demand. Many potential workers are juggling child care or other responsibilities at home; others remain cautious about the health risks of returning to in-person work.

“I think we will see labor supply improve pretty dramatically in the coming months as the pandemic abates,” Mr. Zhao said.

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