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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Employers added 187,000 jobs in August

    President Joe Biden speaks about the August jobs report in the Rose Garden of the White House, Friday, Sept. 1, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

    Employers added 187,000 jobs, workers rushed into the labor force and wages outpaced inflation in August in positive signs that the economy continues to show remarkable resilience in the midst of a cool-down.

    The unemployment rate ticked up to 3.8 percent, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report released Friday that reflected some layoffs but also nearly 600,000 workers joining the labor force for the first time.

    The report also showed that wages were up 4.3 percent, a sharper annual increase than inflation, which stood at 3.3 percent as of July, according to the Personal Consumption Expenditures price index released Thursday.

    The August report caps 32 months of consecutive job gains, scoring a political victory for President Biden, who has endeavored to cement a pro-worker record as he gears up for his reelection campaign after getting pummeled for surging inflation last year.

    Addressing reporters in the Rose Garden on Friday, Biden touted the report as evidence that his administration's "Bidenomics" plan to rebuild the middle class is working.

    "Some experts said to get inflation under control, we needed higher unemployment and lower wages," Biden said. "But I've never thought that was the problem - too many people having a job or that working people are making too much money. And now, after months and months of bringing inflation down while at the same time adding jobs and growing wages, it matters."

    Still, there are some signs of cooling in the economy. Revised jobs figures for June and July - down a combined 110,000 from previous reports - reinforced recent evidence that the labor market has decelerated substantially since last year. The number of monthly jobs created has fallen below 200,000 for three consecutive months, which never happened in 2022.

    "The labor market is back to its normal pre-pandemic climate," said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter. "The question going forward is whether this will be the sustainable long-term condition of the labor market or whether we will cross below the pre-pandemic level to something slower and cooler."

    While the unemployment rate ticked up to a 18-month high of 3.8 percent, economists cautioned against reading too much into the spike in unemployment, a volatile figure, because it also reflects that more than 700,000 workers, some new and some not, are now in the labor market looking for work.

    Payrolls continued to swell across a variety of service industries in August. Health care, which has mushroomed because of the demands of an aging baby boomer population, led the way, adding 71,000 jobs. Leisure and hospitality, an industry that hemorrhaged workers during the pandemic, continues to play catch-up, adding 40,000 new jobs. Social assistance, which includes social workers and home health aides, added 26,000 jobs.

    Construction, despite its sensitivity to interest rate hikes, remains surprisingly resilient because of an influx of infrastructure spending, adding 22,000 jobs in August.

    Meanwhile, other sectors have slowed notably. Employment in warehousing and transportation lost 34,000 jobs in August, reflecting the shutdown of the trucking giant Yellow. The information sector, which includes the tech and entertainment industries, lost 15,000 jobs. Employment in the motion picture and sound recording industries fell by 17,000, as a labor dispute has effectively shut down Hollywood.

    "This report could have been even stronger if not for these one-off events," said Nick Bunker, economic research director at the jobs site Indeed. He noted that job creation is still much higher than needed to keep up with population growth. "It's still a really robust labor market," he said.

    Payrolls changed little in manufacturing, wholesale trade, retail and financial activities in August. These industries are seeing meager to no growth after rapid expansion during recent boom times fueled in part by pandemic lockdowns.

    Despite more than a year's worth of interest rate hikes, the resilient labor market has buoyed the economy through several rough patches earlier this year - including bank failures, a depressed tech industry and slower business investment that has weighed on economic growth. Consumer spending this summer has fueled demand for businesses, pushing employers to post more job opportunities than there are unemployed workers. Indeed, layoffs remain low and the country appears to have dodged a recession that economists had been predicting for months.

    All three major stock indexes wavered at Friday's jobs report, as investors appeared ambivalent about whether the Federal Reserve would raise interest rates again in September.

    Average hourly wages continued to rise to an average of $33.82 an hour, outpacing inflation, but the pace of that improvement slowed in August.

    More broadly, Americans continue to feel gloomy about the economy. The Conference Board, a business research group, reported this week that its consumer confidence index sank in August.

    "People really don't like inflation, and just because inflation came down recently, we shouldn't expect them to change on a dime," said Preston Mui, a senior economist at Employ America, a left-leaning think tank.

    Although the share of Americans participating in the workforce remains lower than its pre-pandemic levels - in part because of early retirements of baby boomers - labor force participation rose in August to 62.8 percent, the first gain since March. The percentage of people ages 25 to 54 years old, considered prime working age, who were working or looking for a job is at a two-decade high.

    Federal Reserve leaders, alongside other top economists, have walked back their recession forecasts for this year, as they point to signs that inflation is continuing to fall in response to interest rate hikes without triggering widespread job losses.

    So far, central bankers have left the door open to another possible rate hike in September, arguing that there is more ground to cover in their inflation fight. But the latest jobs figures did not cement their decision one way or another.

    That's in part because officials will get fresh data on inflation before their next meeting Sept. 19-20. Also, the Fed has long said it needs to see months of data on inflation and the labor market to gauge whether encouraging trends will stick - rather than react to individual reports.

    Fed Chair Jerome H. Powell underscored last week that the central bank is resolute. To get the inflation job done, the labor market has to weaken and the economy must slow, Powell said. (At their September meeting, policymakers will release fresh forecasts for how high the labor market could climb and how little the economy could grow amid high rates.)

    "We will need price stability to achieve a sustained period of strong labor market conditions that benefit all," Powell said in a closely watched speech last week.

    Government data also suggests that fewer workers are leaving their jobs in high-burnout industries, even those that are still growing, such as health care and leisure and hospitality, which faced severe staffing shortages during the coronavirus pandemic.

    "Employers who have had a hard time hiring for years now, they don't necessarily have people to lay off, but they're going to slow hiring," said Rachel Sederberg, a senior economist at Lightcast, a labor market analytics firm. "Things are coming back down to reasonable levels. We're not spending as much on services."

    Kerri Wilson, a registered cardiac nurse in Asheville, N.C., considered quitting her job during the pandemic because of poor pay and understaffing. Inflation weighed heavily on her family, making it impossible to save, let alone afford after-school sports for her son or take summer vacations.

    But last year, Wilson, 36, received a $9-an-hour pay increase, negotiated by her union, bringing her up to roughly $40 an hour. This summer, she was able to take two beach vacations. She and her husband can now afford to drive without worrying about running out of gas money. And her son can sign up for three sports leagues this year.

    "I'm actually able to live now," Wilson said. "It's helped a lot because my husband was able to pursue another job opportunity, and it gave us a little more financial freedom."

    Meanwhile, she said, morale has improved at work, as some hospital staff who quit during the pandemic for more lucrative options have returned to her hospital.

    - - -

    Rachel Siegel contributed to this report.

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