The Upshot|Hot Vax Summer Is Looking Lukewarm
Now that’s more like it.
Employers added 559,000 jobs in May, and created more jobs in March and April than earlier estimates suggested. The shockingly weak April number that confounded economists four weeks ago (originally reported as a gain of 266,000 jobs, now revised up to 278,000) looks like an aberration, not a major downshift in the pace of recovery.
But that doesn’t mean all is well. Just a few weeks ago, it seemed more likely than not that the United States was on the verge of a boom summer, a time of explosive growth that would bring the economy back to full health faster than in any recovery in memory.
It has become increasingly clear, however — both from anecdotal reports and in data — that a reopening spurred on by vaccination is harder than it once seemed. The possibility of adding a million jobs a month seemed within grasp not long ago, but now looks more like wishful thinking.
It’s not so much a hot vax summer as a warm vax summer.
If you average the last three months of job creation, employers are adding 541,000 positions a month. In a normal expansion, that would be great; it’s a higher number than was attained for even a single month in the recovery that began in 2009. But it does not imply a return to full health in the immediate future.
At the job creation rate of the last three months, it would take 14 months to return to February 2020 employment levels — longer if the goal is to return to the prepandemic employment trend.
Unlike in a typical recovery, the problem appears to be the supply of labor, not the demand for it. Job openings are at record highs and employers are eager to hire, but they can’t find workers, at least not at the wages they are used to paying.
The details of the May numbers support this idea. Wages are soaring — average hourly earning were up 0.5 percent, yet the share of adults in the labor force actually ticked down. The number of people not in the labor force rose by 160,000, implying more people just said, “Forget it, I’m not even looking for a job.”
There have been heated debates over whether this is a result of expanded unemployment insurance benefits, which may give people less incentive to work; concerns related to child care and Covid-related health risks; or perhaps a broader psychological reset for many would-be workers.
These are not mutually exclusive; all are likely to be contributors to this unusual moment in which demand for goods and services is soaring and supply of them is constrained.
An open question is how much labor supply might increase in some states that end expanded jobless benefits earlier than the September expiration date contained in federal law.
The details of the industries that are adding jobs similarly point to reopening struggles. The leisure and hospitality sector, which suffered the worst damage from the pandemic, added 292,000 jobs in May. That sounds great, but is actually slower than the 328,000 jobs it added in April.
In other words, even as the nation was four weeks further along in achieving widespread vaccination, and seemingly every restaurant in the country was complaining it couldn’t hire enough waiters, cooks and dishwashers, the pace of recovery in that sector slowed rather than accelerated.
To the degree that the labor supply shortage is about people re-evaluating their priorities, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It could lead to a more lasting reset of compensation and work standards across the economy.
But it does have implications for politics and the economy as a whole. For instance, Democrats want to run on a boom-time economy in the 2022 midterms. That will be hard to do if the supply of labor turns out to have shifted lower in the long term.
In this strange reopening summer, there have been supply constraints on many things, including lumber, computer chips and used cars. But there is a big difference between those supply problems and the labor supply problem: Humans, unlike lumber and semiconductors, can make choices.
To the degree that the labor shortage is caused by expanded jobless benefits or schools that are closed, it should go away in time. To the degree there is a broader rethinking of the role of work in people’s lives, this phenomenon will outlast this post-pandemic summer, whatever its temperature ultimately turns out to be.