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Workers slow to return as Delta threat lingers

American employers added only 194,000 positions last month, badly missing expectations for the second month in a row

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Another surprisingly weak jobs report paints a muddled picture of the United States' economic recovery, said Colby Smith at the Financial Times. American employers added only 194,000 positions last month, badly missing expectations for the second month in a row. The unemployment rate fell, from 5.2 percent to 4.8 percent — unfortunately, the most likely cause is that many "prime-age workers," those 25 to 54, stopped actively looking for work and no longer get counted. Businesses across a wide variety of sectors continue to struggle to fill roles. The "long-held prediction that Americans would return to work en masse as schools reopened and federal unemployment benefits expired" did not materialize. There are still 5 million more Americans unemployed than at the start of the pandemic, and it seems "many of the forces holding them back from returning to the workforce persist."

"It's not as bad it looks," said Neil Irwin at The New York Times. Some of the weakness can be chalked up to "strange statistical quirks around school reopening." Education jobs fell by 180,000 in September, but that's "not new information about what is happening this fall." It more likely reflects a shrinking education sector we already knew about. Earlier employment numbers from July and August were also revised up by 169,000 jobs. Labor force participation, however, "remains the Achilles' heel of the recovery." Women especially continue to have a hard time getting off the sidelines, said Danny Dougherty and Taylor Umlauf at The Wall Street Journal. "The number of women who say they want a job but aren't looking for one has grown since the pandemic began," while the number of men in that position has shrunk. The Delta variant "raised fears and scrambled child care" for many women who planned to start work again this fall.

We can at least say with confidence that there was no Labor Day "cliff," said Greg Iacurci at CNBC. Many economists and policymakers blamed federal benefits for "holding back the recovery." But after the $300 weekly unemployment benefits bonus ended last month, there was little evidence of workers rushing back. It's clear that "other factors, especially COVID, have played a bigger role." Many workers have no intention of returning to their old jobs, said Robert Reich at Common Dreams. "Corporate America is calling this a 'labor shortage.'" But what we really have is a "living wage shortage, a hazard pay shortage, a child-care shortage, a paid sick leave shortage, and a health-care shortage." A lot of those unemployed are refusing the same low-wage, backbreaking work they had before the pandemic. It's the "equivalent of a general strike."

There's nothing wrong with holding out for a better gig, said Megan McArdle at The Washington Post, "but that doesn't mean those jobs exist, or profitably can, in the same numbers as the old jobs." Workers may find that the longer they wait out this cycle, the greater chance employers will have "learned to get along without them," finding adequate replacements in technology and QR codes. It's great that "workers feel their bargaining position is strong enough to demand something better than the same old grind." Let's just hope they're right.

This article was first published in the latest issue of The Week magazine. If you want to read more like it, you can try six risk-free issues of the magazine here.

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