The U.S. economy added 245,000 jobs in November, as the unemployment rate fell to 6.7 percent, according to data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Economists had predicted the economy would gain around 440,000 jobs.
Amid a fresh surge in coronavirus cases and a new round of shutdowns, Friday's figure represents the fifth straight month of decelerating job gains. It is by far the lowest monthly total since the economy started its halting recovery.
"Today’s report is both a wakeup call and a warning," said Nick Bunker, Indeed economic research director. "Coronavirus cases are surging throughout the country and several federal relief programs are set to expire this month. Progress in the labor market has slowed at the worst possible time. We might be optimistic about the spring, but the winter could bring another round of economic pain."
BLS unemployment data is collected on or around the 12th of the month, but more recent metrics underscore how vulnerable the economy is to a “super-surge” of coronavirus infections around the holidays that could send people back into their homes and shutter businesses.
"This surge in cases has the potential to significantly slow down overall economic activity and therefore employers’ desire to hire," said Nick Bunker, director of economic research at Indeed.com. “The pullback from those households could slow consumption and therefore overall economic growth,” he said — a major risk given that consumer spending fuels some two-thirds of economic activity.
The BLS data came two days after a lackluster report on jobs growth by payroll processor ADP in conjunction with Moody’s Analytics, which found that employers added 307,000 private sector jobs last month, in contrast to the 475,000 expected among economists surveyed by Dow Jones.
“ADP’s employment report was somewhat disappointing,” said Julia Pollak, labor economist at ZipRecruiter.com. "Ideally, we’d be adding 2 million a month and really climbing out of this recession."
Two of the past three weekly jobless claims reports showed increases, reversing a months-long trend of improvements — but seeing how many people are losing jobs is only part of the equation, said Dan North, chief economist, North America at Euler Hermes.
“It does not tell the other half, which is the number of people becoming employed. You would expect with the increase in lockdowns, you would see fewer people becoming employed as well.”
Data bears this out: According to Glassdoor.com, job openings fell by 2.5 percent on a month-to-month basis and are still down by more than 10 percent from pre-pandemic levels.
"It is instructive that this decline has been very broad, which points to a repeat of what we saw in the spring, but on a smaller scale," said Daniel Zhao, senior economist at Glassdoor. "Basically, every major group except for health care has seen job openings fall," he said.
Since job openings are a forward-looking metric, economists are looking ahead with some trepidation to the December jobs report, which will be released just after the new year.
“Ultimately, the virus is in the driver’s seat. The virus is what determines the trajectory of the recovery,” Zhao said.
The profound distortion in usual hiring patterns that typically take place around the holidays will make forecasting difficult, North said. “There has been much less holiday hiring than the seasonal adjustments would normally account for, so that would hold the December… jobs numbers down as well,” he said.
Although the promise of a vaccine has raised the hopes of investors, public health officials warn that a large-scale rollout sufficient to protect much of the population could still be months away.
“It's hard to see exactly when the recovery can really start,” Pollak said. “The start of vaccination is not enough. We need people to feel totally safe gathering in large numbers.”