Retail Continues to Add Jobs — but Spiking COVID-19 Cases Remain a Threat to Workers

The retail workforce was a bright spot in last month’s jobs report as stores, offices and businesses continued to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, American employers added a total of 638,000 jobs last month, while the unemployment rate fell to 6.9% from the 7.9% recorded in September. Economists had been looking for a payroll addition of 530,000 and a jobless rate of 7.7%.

Notable gains were seen in the retail industry, as well as leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, plus construction. The retail sector added 103,700 jobs, with almost a third of the gain being seen in electronics and appliance stores at 31,200. Employment also rose in clothing and clothing accessories stores with 12,600, general merchandise stores with 10,000 and non-store or online retailers with 8,500. Sporting goods and hobby stores saw a small increase of 2,100 jobs, while miscellaneous store retailers lost 2,600 workers.

Although total employment in retail trade has risen by 1.9 million since April, it remains 499,000 below the level logged in February — the month before the COVID-19 outbreak took hold in the United States. In the spring through early summer, small businesses and massive corporations alike saw a domino effect from widespread store closures. Workers across a full range of industries were furloughed and laid off, and a number of retail executives temporarily waived their salaries in order to improve their companies’ liquidity.

The industry, however, is still threatened by the health crisis: A tally by Johns Hopkins University researchers found that the number of new daily COVID-19 cases in the U.S. surpassed 100,000 for the first time on Wednesday. (The data revealed that 102,831 infections were recorded on Wednesday — up from 91,530 cases on Election Day.) The surge could lead state and local governments to impose renewed lockdowns that would force nonessential businesses to once again shutter their doors to the public and put more workers out of jobs.

The jobs report was released at a critical juncture in American history as a number of key states continue to count votes that would determine the winner of the unprecedented 2020 presidential election. President Donald Trump, who is seeking reelection, is facing Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden.

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