US hiring sharply misses expectations in April with just 266,000 new jobs added

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The U.S. economy added 266,000 jobs in April, sharply missing economists' expectations.

The unemployment rate unexpectedly rose to 6.1% — well below the April 2020 peak of 14.7%, but about twice the pre-crisis level, the Labor Department said in its monthly payroll report, released Friday morning. Economists surveyed by Refinitiv expected the report to show that unemployment fell to 5.8% and the economy added 978,000 jobs.

"We’ve known for some time now that there are tensions or mismatches between the demand for workers and a large number of job openings and the large number of unemployed individuals," said Mark Hamrick, Bankrate's senior economic analyst. "Many employers report struggling to find available workers. Supply constraints are also limiting further improvement in output." 

At the same time, optimism about the economic recovery is growing. Many Americans are flush with cash after having received $1,400 federal relief checks, along with savings they have built up after cutting back on travel, entertainment and dining out over the past year. Millions of consumers have begun spending their extra cash on restaurant meals, airline tickets, road trips and new cars and homes.

Most economists expect job growth to strengthen as more vaccinations are administered and trillions in government aid spreads through the economy. Even if another uptick in COVID-19 cases were to occur, analysts don’t expect most states and cities to reimpose tough business restrictions. Oxford Economics, a consulting firm, predicts that a total of 8 million jobs will be added this year, reducing the unemployment rate to a low 4.3% by year’s end.

Still, the economic rebound has been so fast that many businesses, particularly in the hard-hit hospitality sector — which includes restaurants, bars and hotels — have been caught flat-footed and unable to fill all their job openings. Some unemployed people have also been reluctant to look for work because they fear catching the virus.

Others have entered new occupations rather than return to their old jobs. And many women, especially working mothers, have had to leave the workforce to care for children.

Most of the hiring so far represents a bounce-back after tens of millions of positions were lost when the pandemic flattened the economy 14 months ago. The economy remains more than 8 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic level.

The Biden administration’s $1.9 trillion rescue package, approved in early March, has helped maintain Americans’ incomes and purchasing power, much more so than in previous recessions. The economy expanded at a vigorous 6.4% annual rate in the first three months of the year. That pace could accelerate to as high as 13% in the April-June quarter, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta.

"Some of the biggest worries of late have been focused on inflation: Not whether we have any, but whether what we are seeing will persist," Hamrick said. 

One government report last week showed that wages and benefits rose at a solid pace in the first quarter, suggesting that some companies are having to pay more to attract and keep employees. In fact, the number of open jobs is now significantly above pre-pandemic levels, though the size of the labor force — the number of Americans either working or looking for work — is still smaller by about 4 million people.

In addition, the recovery remains sharply uneven: Most college-educated and white collar employees have been able to work from home over the past year. Many have not only built up savings but have also expanded their wealth as a result of rising home values and a record-setting stock market.

By contrast, job cuts have fallen heavily on low-wage workers, racial minorities and people without college educations. In addition, many women, especially working mothers, have had to leave the workforce to care for children.

"We cannot be absolutely certain there will not be some more unpleasant surprises in store. We just got one," said Hamrick. "Then again, we’ve navigated through a pandemic over the past 14 or so months."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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