America’s jobs recovery got an unexpected boost in January despite the Omicron variant spreading rapidly throughout the country.
The economy added 467,000 jobs last month, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday, significantly better than most economists had expected.
This was a shock, as the consensus forecast had been for only 150,000 jobs. Plenty of experts even expected job losses.
So once again, economists got it totally wrong. It’s a reminder that there are a lot of moving parts in the pandemic economy, making it hard for economic models to keep up with a situation that’s so in flux.
The report blew expectations out of the water.
“The January employment report topped expectations in nearly every way possible. The labor market’s recovery easily leapt over the hurdle thrown up by the Omicron wave in January,” said Wells Fargo economists Sarah House and Michael Pugliese in a note to clients.
Before the report economists had predicted a smaller gain or even a drop, warning that business closures and worker absenteeism in jobs without sick leave could lead to people being counted as unemployed. A similar dynamic played out last winter, when rising infections temporarily weighed on the jobs recovery in December 2020.
“Pre-Covid seasonal patterns no longer seem to hold”
This time around, however, seasonal factors actually helped the January numbers.
“The economy usually sheds upwards of 2.5 million jobs in January as the seasonal bump in retail and transportation employment subsides. But pre-Covid seasonal patterns no longer seem to hold,” said Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter.
On top of that, “with many businesses already understaffed, employers let go fewer workers than usual,” House and Pugliese added.
That’s likely in large part because America is still in midst of a labor shortage. As of December, the nation had 10.9 million open jobs.
Still, the Omicron variant did leave its mark on American workers last month. The number of people working remotely because of the virus increased to 15.4%, for example. A total of 6 million people said they worked fewer hours or not at all because of their employer closing or losing business because of the pandemic. The number of people jobless for less than five weeks also increased.
The average number of hours worked also declined, “showing that the impact of the pandemic is still here as more workers had to cut hours due to illness, quarantine, or family obligations,” said Glassdoor Senior Economist Daniel Zhao.
The unemployment rate inched up to 4%, the first increase in the jobless rate since June 2021. The labor force participation rate increased slightly, to 62.2% from 61.9% in December, as more people entered the workforce. The rate is still below its pre-pandemic level.
Recovery on track
Despite all that, the January report hammered home that the jobs recovery is still on track.
For President Joe Biden, it makes for a nice report card: The economy added 6.6 million jobs during his first 12 months in office, making it by far the best-ever first year for a president.
Meanwhile, data revisions from the BLS showed that the winter jobs gains were much stronger than previously expected: Between November and December, the number of positions added was more than 700,000 jobs higher than initially reported. Similarly, jobs gains were stronger in January and February 2021 as well.
But over the summer, the revisions did the opposite. The employment change for June and July was more than 800,000 positions lower than previously reported.
These numbers are huge and affect tons of households. But in short, the revisions to the 2021 job growth numbers mean that the labor market recovery was smoother than first thought last year.