The American labor force’s rebound made an about-face last month as a surge in COVID-19 cases led to more lockdowns and federal aid might have come too little too late.
According to the Labor Department, United States employers lost 140,000 jobs in December — the first decline in payrolls since the mass layoffs in the spring when the pandemic touched down in the country. Economists had predicted an uptick of 50,000 jobs.
What’s more, the unemployment rate remained unchanged at 6.7% — a drop from a peak of 14.7% in April but nearly double the 3.5% in the prior year period.
The data showed that job losses in leisure and hospitality and in private education were partially offset by advancements in retail, construction, plus professional and business services. The gains in retail were likely due to seasonal hiring, with chains like Walmart, Gap and Dick’s Sporting Goods growing their workforce by the thousands.
The retail sector added 120,500 jobs last month, with close to half of that growth occurring in general merchandise stores, which saw an increase of 56,700. (The category includes department stores, which fell by 2,000, and warehouse clubs and supercenters, which rose by 58,700.)
Gains were also recorded in nonstore retailers (+14,300) and clothing and accessories stores (+7,700), while sporting goods and hobby stores climbed by 2,700 and miscellaneous store retailers inched up by 1,100.
Still, employment in the industry is 411,000 lower than in February. Amid another wave of coronavirus infections, plus two emerging variants, a number of states and localities have reinstated restrictions that have shuttered stores and offices once again and subsequently pushed more people out of work. Experts have also warned that January could be the worst month of the outbreak thus far as temperatures plummet, forcing people to congregate indoors, and many Americans traveled during the holiday season despite warnings from health authorities.
In an effort to help boost struggling families and businesses, President Donald Trump and congressional lawmakers approved a $900 billion stimulus package that includes $600 in one-time direct payments to individuals and additional $300 a week for the unemployed through March 14. (Those checks as well as benefits have already begun rolling out to eligible Americans.) It also includes loans for small businesses, assistance for renters and funding for coronavirus vaccine distribution, and other provisions.