Fear of the coronavirus and its delta variant is still keeping workers on the sidelines of the job market, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told The Inquirer.
Beyond the immediate health risk, Walsh said Friday that some people have also taken the pandemic’s interruption of the workplace to rethink their own careers and, perhaps, chart a new path.
“We’re living in pandemic times,” Walsh said. “There’s still lots of fear, of people worrying about getting the delta variant or coronavirus. I think that’s an issue. And I think a lot of people are reexamining where they are in their careers and looking at their work-life balance.”
Walsh weighed in on the state of the economic recovery after his Labor Department reported that U.S. job growth fell to its slowest pace of the year in September. Employers added 194,000 jobs last month, well below the half million predicted by some economists. The unemployment rate fell to 4.8%, but in large part because fewer people looked for work.
One of the most baffling distortions to the U.S. economy brought on by the pandemic is the oddity of having high unemployment and plentiful open positions at the same time. The number of job openings reached a record 10.9 million in July, the most recent month available. Yet there were 7.7 million jobless workers in September. The U.S. has recovered almost eight of all 10 jobs lost during the pandemic, the Labor Department reported.
“Generally, you would think the story is always about whether there are enough jobs,” said Peter Cappelli, a Wharton professor who studies workforce trends. “And the story now is not quite that. It’s about persuading people to take them.”
Experts said the delta variant threw cold water on an economy on its way to normalization, keeping many workers and consumers at home and disrupting global supply chains. One reason economists expected more robust job growth last month was the reopening of schools, helping parents who lacked child care return to work. Instead, many offices remain empty and outbreaks temporarily shuttered some schools.
“Delta did some meaningful damage to the economy and job market,” said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody’s. “Delta’s fingerprints are all over the weak job gain in September.”
There were some signs that a recovery, however delayed, was still on the way. The number of jobs added in July and August was revised upward by 169,000 in total. Joel Naroff, president of Bucks County-based Naroff Economics, noted that the average monthly job gain from the private sector is 488,000 over the past three months.
“Apparently, firms are finding people to hire, though clearly not as many as they would like,” he wrote in an email. He largely blamed the low job growth figure on “the education component.”
That “education component” was the surprising decline in local education jobs. Despite the reopening of schools, the sector lost 144,000 jobs, the Labor Department reported. Walsh, a former Boston mayor, said the last few months would be the time when schools hire bus drivers, lunch monitors, and teacher’s assistants, “so we have to dive into that a little bit to see what happened there.”
The unemployment rates for adult men (4.7%), adult women (4.2%), whites (4.2%), and Blacks (7.9%) declined in September. The jobless rates for teenagers (11.5%), Asians (4.2%), and Hispanics (6.3%) showed little change over the month, according to the Labor Department.
The monthly jobs report does not include details on state or local unemployment rates, with those figures to be released later. In August, the unemployment rate in the Philadelphia metropolitan region was 6.7%, above the national rate.
Walsh said the Labor Department has job centers in Philly, where anyone looking for employment can get help with skills training, building resumes, and connecting with employers.