U.S. labor market recovery gaining steam; worker shortages an obstacle

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new claims for unemployment benefits fell more than expected last week, while layoffs plunged to a 21-year low in June, suggesting the labor market recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic was gaining traction.

But a shortage of willing workers is hampering hiring, with other data on Thursday showing a measure of employment at factories contracting in June for the first time in seven months. Manufacturers said they were experiencing “difficulty in hiring and retaining direct labor,” the Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said in its survey of national factory activity, noting that these challenges “across the entire value chain continue to be the major obstacles to increasing growth.”

One respondent in primary metals said “lack of labor is killing us.”

The data was released ahead of Friday’s closely watched employment report for June, which according to a Reuters survey of economists will likely show nonfarm payrolls increasing by 700,000 jobs last month after rising by 559,000 in May. The unemployment rate is forecast to tick down to 5.7% from 5.8%.

The economy is experiencing a boom in demand following a reopening made possible by vaccinations against the coronavirus, with more than 150 million Americans fully immunized.

“America’s back to work and an important milestone was reached where new claims are back below the 400,000 barrier after a hiccup at the start of June,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at FWDBONDS in New York. “Summer is always the strongest season for hiring each year, and this year is no exception.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits dropped 51,000 to a seasonally adjusted 364,000 for the week ended June 26, the Labor Department said. That was the lowest number since March 2020, when mandatory shutdowns of nonessential businesses were enforced to slow the first wave of COVID-19 infections.

The improvement in claims had appeared to stall in mid-June. Though claims remain above the 200,000-250,000 range that is viewed as consistent with a healthy labor market, they have tumbled from a record 6.149 million in early April 2020.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 390,000 applications for the latest week. There was a big decline in filings in Pennsylvania, which reversed the prior week’s surge. The state last month upgraded its filing system, and the transition could be causing volatility in the data. There were also large drops in claims in California, Kentucky and Texas.

The claims data could become noisy in the weeks ahead as 25 states with mostly Republican governors pull out of federal government-funded unemployment programs, including a $300 weekly check, which businesses complained were encouraging the jobless to stay at home. The early termination began on June 5 and will run through July 31, when Louisiana, the only one of those states with a Democratic governor, ends the weekly check.

For the rest of the country, these benefits will lapse on Sept. 6. There is no evidence so far of a surge in job searches in the 20 states that have already ended the federal benefits.

A survey this week by job search engine Indeed found that while the vast majority of the unemployed indicated they would like to start looking for work in the next three months, many did not express a sense of urgency. But rising vaccinations, dwindling savings and the opening of schools in the fall will be key to pulling them back into the labor force.

The claims report showed the number of people continuing to receive benefits after an initial week of aid rose 56,000 to 3.469 million during the week ended June 19. There were 14.7 million people receiving benefits under all programs in mid-June, slightly down from 14.8 million early in the month.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading mostly higher. The dollar edged up against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices fell.

EMPLOYEE POACHING

In a separate report on Thursday, ISM said its index of national factory activity slipped to 60.6 last month from 61.2 in May. A reading above 50 indicates expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for 11.9% of the U.S. economy.

A measure of factory employment contracted for the first time since November. Companies reported hiring or attempting to hire. A significant number reported “employee turnover due to wage dynamics in the markets,” ISM’s Timothy Fiore said.

“It appears that companies are paying up to steal workers from other firms,” said Conrad DeQuadros, senior economic advisor at Brean Capital in New York.

Lack of affordable child care and fears of contracting the coronavirus have also been blamed for keeping workers, mostly women, at home. There were a record 9.3 million job openings at the end of April and 9.3 million people were officially unemployed in May.

A third report from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed job cuts announced by U.S.-based employers tumbled 16.7% to 20,476 in June, the lowest level since June 2000. Layoffs plummeted 88% compared to June 2020.

There were 67,975 job cuts in the second quarter, the fewest since the April-June period in 1997. In the first half of this year, layoffs dropped 87% to 212,661, the lowest total for the January-June period since 1995.

“We’re seeing the rubber band snap back,” said Andrew Challenger, senior vice president at Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “Companies are holding on tight to their workers during a time of record job openings and very high job seeker confidence. We haven’t seen job cuts this low since the Dot-Com boom.”

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Paul Simao)

German tourist industry warns of job losses from tighter pandemic lockdowns

(Reuters) – The German tourist industry has warned of layoffs and bankruptcies if authorities further tighten lockdowns meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus including by enforcing quarantine for those returning from holidays abroad.

National and regional leaders meeting on Monday evening to decide the next round of measures to tackle the coronavirus pandemic are mulling requiring quarantine for all returning travelers, not just those who were in high-risk areas.

“From the point of view of the tourism industry, it is unacceptable and absolutely disproportionate to quarantine, irrespective of the incidence rate at the destination,” said Michael Frenzel, president of the BTW tourism association, adding that travelers already have to test for the virus.

Two other tourism industry associations, DRV and BDL, said that further restricting international travel could cost jobs for the sector’s 2,300 tour operators and 10,000 travel agencies.

State aid has so far only compensated for a fraction of the costs the industry has suffered as a result of the pandemic, they said.

Earlier in March, Germany removed regions in Spain, including the tourist island of Mallorca, and Portugal from its list of coronavirus risk areas. The decision pushed tens of thousands of Germans to plan last-minute Easter getaways to Spain’s Balearic islands.

Germany is set to extend a lockdown into its fifth month through April 18, according to a draft proposal, as infection rates exceeded the level at which authorities say hospitals will be overstretched.

(Reporting by Klaus Lauer; writing by Bartosz Dabrowski in Gdansk; Editing by Bernadette Baum)

Subsiding layoffs raise cautious optimism for U.S. labor market

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing new applications for unemployment benefits decreased further last week, suggesting the labor market was stabilizing as authorities started to loosen pandemic-related restrictions on businesses.

Despite the signs that layoffs are abating, the weekly jobless claims report from the Labor Department on Thursday showed at least 17.8 million Americans were on benefits in mid-January, indicating that long-term unemployment was likely becoming entrenched. That could boost President Joe Biden’s push for the U.S. Congress to pass his $1.9 trillion recovery plan.

Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told ABC’s Good Morning America that the massive stimulus plan was needed to overcome the economic pain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s too early to predict that this begins a strong reversal of excruciatingly high layoffs,” said Robert Frick, corporate economist at Navy Federal Credit Union in Vienna, Virginia. “Another round of stimulus is important.”

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits fell 33,000 to a seasonally adjusted 779,000 for the week ended Jan. 30. That was the third straight weekly decline. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 830,000 applications for the latest week.

Unadjusted claims decreased 23,525 to 816,247 last week. Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs, 1.165 million people filed claims last week, down from 1.243 million in the prior period.

Claims remain above their 665,000 peak during the 2007-2009 Great Recession, but well below the record 6.867 million last March when the pandemic hit the United States.

Part of the elevation in claims reflects people re-applying for benefits after the government in late December renewed a $300 unemployment supplement until March 14 as part of a pandemic relief package worth nearly $900 billion.

“The decline in new claims in recent weeks adds to the evidence that the worst months for the labor market could very well be behind us,” said Sarah House, a senior economist at Wells Fargo Securities in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Stocks on Wall Street were trading higher. The dollar rose against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices were mostly lower.

LAYOFFS SUBSIDING

Though January was the worst month since the onset of the pandemic, the decline in economic activity leveled off in the second half of the month amid signs of a peak in the recent coronavirus wave.

Data from Homebase, a payroll scheduling and tracking company, showed its measure of employees at work flattened out over the last two weeks of January, pausing the decline observed from December into January.

Other data on Thursday from global outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas showed planned job cuts announced by U.S.-based employers rose only 3.3% to 79,552 in January.

The claims report also showed the number of people receiving benefits after an initial week of aid dropped 193,000 to 4.592 million during the week ended Jan. 23. About 17.836 million people were on unemployment benefits on all programs in mid-January, down from 18.322 million in the first week of 2021.

Last week’s claims data has no bearing on Friday’s closely watched employment report for January, as it falls outside the survey period, which was in the middle of the month. Still, the signs of stability in other labor market measures support expectations that hiring rebounded in January after the economy shed jobs in December for the first time in eight months.

Hopes that the economy created jobs last month were boosted by reports on Wednesday showing rebounds in private payrolls and services industry employment in January. A survey this week also showed manufacturers hired more workers in January.

According to a Reuters poll of economists payrolls likely increased by 50,000 jobs in January after declining by 140,000 in December. In the wake of the fairly upbeat reports, Goldman Sachs lifted its payrolls forecast by 75,000 to 200,000.

But some economists are bracing for a second straight month of job losses in January. The Conference Board’s survey last week showed consumers’ perceptions of labor market conditions deteriorated further last month.

The economy has recouped 12.5 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April. The Congressional Budget Office estimated on Monday that employment would not return to its pre-pandemic level before 2024.

Economists were unperturbed by a separate report on Thursday from the Labor Department showing worker productivity dropped at a 4.8% annualized rate in the fourth quarter. That was the deepest pace of decline since the second quarter of 1981 and followed a 5.1% pace of expansion in the third quarter. The pandemic has caused wild swings in productivity.

“This decline came after very strong productivity growth in the middle quarters of the year, and we think that the pandemic has led to a shift in economic activity away from some low-productivity sectors that has led to firming in productivity growth through some of the noise in the quarterly readings,” said Daniel Silver, an economist at JPMorgan in New York.

(Reporting by Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

U.S. job openings fall in November; layoffs rise

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job openings fell in November, while layoffs mounted at restaurants and hotels amid rampant COVID-19 infections, supporting views that the labor market recovery from the pandemic was stalling.

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, dropped 105,000 to 6.527 million on the last day of November, the Labor Department said on Tuesday in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS. Vacancies have dropped from as high as 7.012 million in January.

The job openings rate slipped to 4.4% from 4.5% in October. Layoffs increased 295,000 to nearly 2.0 million. That lifted the layoffs rate to 1.4% from 1.2% in October. Layoffs were led by the accommodation and food services industry, which shed 263,000 workers. A resurgence in coronavirus cases has led to widespread curbs on businesses, with restaurants and bars hardest hit.

There were 42,000 job losses in the healthcare and social assistance sector. State and local governments, which are experiencing tight budgets because of the pandemic, laid off 21,000 workers.

Hiring was little changed at 5.979 million. The hiring rate was steady at 4.2%.

The JOLTS report followed on the heels of news last Friday that the economy shed 140,000 jobs in December, the first decline in nonfarm payrolls since April, after adding 336,000 positions in November. The economy has recovered 12.4 million of the 22.2 million jobs lost in March and April.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; Editing by Andrea Ricci)

Fed sees little to no growth in much of U.S. as stress mounts

By Howard Schneider and Ann Saphir

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Federal Reserve officials saw “little or no growth” in four of their 12 regional districts and only modest growth in the others in recent weeks as a rapidly spreading health crisis and ongoing recession continued to devastate some U.S. businesses and families even as many others thrive.

In the U.S. central bank’s latest “Beige Book” compendium of anecdotes from businesses across the country, Fed officials seemed to signal that the winter slowdown they’ve feared would follow a new coronavirus outbreak is taking root.

Earlier on Wednesday, Fed Chair Jerome Powell repeated his plea for Congress to provide more aid to “get us through the winter” and support businesses and households until a vaccine allows for a broader resumption of commerce. Initial inoculations may begin in the United States this month.

Meanwhile, the pandemic is spreading at a rate of a million new cases a week and around 1,500 deaths a day.

In some places that has led officials to impose new restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. In others, households have pulled back on their own.

But overall it has left little capacity to fix problems that have plagued the economy since the onset of the pandemic last spring, with women sidelined from the workforce due to childcare concerns, leisure and hospitality firms semi-shuttered, and banks concerned their loans books may come under stress soon.

“This is one of the most troubling Beige Books we have seen in a long time,” Jefferies LLC economist Thomas Simon said.

The possibility of growing loan bank stress added a newly worrisome note: The comparative lack of loan defaults so far has prevented the recession from spawning a separate financial crisis.

But “banking contacts in numerous Districts reported some deterioration of loan portfolios, particularly for commercial lending into the retail and leisure and hospitality sectors,” Fed officials reported. “An increase in delinquencies in 2021 is more widely anticipated.”

Commercial real estate – especially in the office and retail sectors – was a weak spot across most districts. The Boston Fed reported that contacts there “estimated daytime office occupancy rates at around 20 percent – bad news for the shops and restaurants that relied on office workers’ business.”

The regional bank also said office tenants nearing the end of leases were renewing only for the short term and that some respondents noted an increase in available subleased space, signaling more trouble ahead in the sector.

Similarly, firms had become tentative about hiring because of the uncertain path of the pandemic.

LABOR MARKET WORRIES

Nearly all districts reported that employment was growing more slowly and that the recovery “remained incomplete.”

Businesses said it was harder to retain workers, especially women, because of challenges finding child care and dealing with school closures caused by the virus. Firms in several districts said they feared “employment levels would fall over the winter” before improving.

In Boston, “a supplier to commercial aviation announced major layoffs over the summer and has not had any reason to revise those plans either up or down,” local Fed officials noted.

Still the latest collection of Fed field reports, compiled on or before Nov. 20, included stories of other firms where managers struggled to find workers to help meet a boom in goods sales.

That divide, among regions and sectors that are doing well and those that are not, has become a hallmark of the current recession and presents the Fed with a difficult decision as it debates whether to provide more support for the economy at its Dec. 15-16 policy meeting.

The economy continues to recover from the deep blow it suffered at the start of the pandemic, and the prospect of a coming COVID-19 vaccine means the recovery could gain steam next year.

In the meantime, the country is 10 million jobs short of where it was in February. Job numbers for November will be released on Friday and are expected to show the pace of improvement is slowing, with some analysts now predicting an outright job loss.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Paul Simao)

U.S. weekly jobless claims rise as COVID-19 infections surge

By Lucia Mutikani

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The number of Americans filing first-time claims for jobless benefits increased further last week, suggesting that an explosion in new COVID-19 infections and business restrictions were boosting layoffs and undermining the labor market recovery.

Other data on Wednesday showed business spending on capital remained solid at the start of the fourth quarter, though momentum has cooled from the prior months. The economy is shifting into slower gear as the boost from more than $3 trillion in government coronavirus relief ends.

“There is a two-tier recovery from the pandemic recession where the top of society continues to spend as normal while the bottom-half of the country sits in long lines at food banks with the opportunities for employment few and far between,” said Chris Rupkey, chief economist at MUFG in New York.

Initial claims for state unemployment benefits increased 30,000 to a seasonally adjusted 778,000 for the week ended Nov. 21, the Labor Department said on Wednesday. It was the second straight weekly increase in claims. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 730,000 applications in the latest week.

The weekly claims report, the most timely data on the economy’s health, was published a day early because of Thursday’s Thanksgiving Day holiday.

Unadjusted claims jumped 78,372 to 827,710 last week. Economists prefer the unadjusted number because of earlier difficulties adjusting the claims data for seasonal fluctuations due to the economic shock caused by the pandemic.

Including a government-funded program for the self-employed, gig workers and others who do not qualify for the regular state unemployment programs, 1.14 million people filed claims last week. There were at least 20.5 million people collecting unemployment benefits in early November.

The United States has been slammed by a fresh wave of coronavirus infections, with daily cases exceeding 100,000 since early November. More than 12 million people have been infected in the country, according to a Reuters tally of official data.

The respiratory illness has killed more than 257,000 Americans and hospitalizations are soaring, prompting state and local governments to reimpose a host of restrictions on social and economic life in recent weeks, which could keep claims above their 665,000 peak seen during the 2007-09 Great Recession.

U.S. stocks were mixed in early trade. The dollar dipped against a basket of currencies. U.S. Treasury prices rose.

RECORD THIRD-QUARTER GROWTH

Unemployment claims dropped from a record 6.867 million in March as about 80% of the people temporarily laid off in March and April were rehired, accounting for most of the rebound in job growth over the last six months.

That improvement, which spilled over to the broader economy through robust consumer spending, was spurred by the fiscal stimulus. In a separate report on Wednesday, the Commerce Department confirmed the economy’s historic pace of expansion in the third quarter.

Gross domestic product grew at an unrevised 33.1% annualized rate, the government said in its second estimate of third-quarter output. The economy contracted at a 31.4% rate in the second quarter, the deepest since the government started keeping records in 1947.

(Reporting By Lucia Mutikani; additional reporting by Dan Burns, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Barkin: U.S. challenge is finding jobs for ‘last 5%’ displaced by crisis – BBG

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S.’s top economic challenge now is bringing unemployed workers back to jobs as those displaced from hard-hit industries like food service may find their “classic next job” has also disappeared, Richmond Federal Reserve bank president Thomas Barkin said on Wednesday.

“Where I see the real challenge now is getting the last 5% of Americans back into the workforce,” Barkin said in an interview on Bloomberg television, referring to the current 8.4% unemployment rate that is about 5 percentage points above the record low of last year.

That could be tough, Barkin said, because “we know a lot of people used to be waiters or work at an amusement park…Their classic next job would have been at a retailer or working at another restaurant. If those places are not hiring how do we get them redeployed?”

The U.S. is currently about 11 million jobs shy of where it was in February. Monthly job growth has been strong since the pandemic led to a massive round of layoffs, and a jobs report Friday is expected to show several hundred thousand positions were added in September. Private payroll processor ADP’s data on Wednesday estimated the number at 749,000.

That would still represent a slowing over recent months, and economists at the Fed and elsewhere worry it may take years to reclaim lost ground in the labor market.

Concerns about persistent damage to the employment prospects particularly for younger or less skilled workers has been growing as the pandemic slump continues, and companies begin retooling for a smaller future workforce.

Disney on Tuesday announced it was laying off 28,000 workers as coronavirus-related restrictions on its theme parks lengthened through the summer and into the fall.

Though most are part-time jobs it was an example of the dynamic Barkin described, eliminating positions that could serve as flexible or entry level work for people who will now need to look elsewhere in an economy where many industries and occupations open to less skilled employees may have to cut back.

“Issues of job retraining, issues of getting (education) grants…Those are the kind of things that are important if we are going to bring the economy all the way back,” Barkin said.

(Reporting by Howard Schneider; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Airline CEOs plead with White House to avert looming U.S. job cuts

By Jeff Mason and David Shepardson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows met with major airline chief executives on Thursday as the industry braces for thousands of job cuts in two weeks, and urged lawmakers to embrace a $1.5 trillion coronavirus aid package proposed by a bipartisan congressional group and endorsed by President Donald Trump.

Meadows told reporters said that if House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi was willing to move a bill that would support airline workers and prevent layoffs, Trump would support it, noting the looming layoffs of thousands of workers set for Oct 1.

American Airlines Chief Executive Doug Parker said airlines would also be working with Pelosi.

​Meadows said the administration had examined executive action options, all of them less than ideal.

Airlines did not offer a new proposal but again made the case that helping avert airline job cuts was one good reason to pass a broad coronavirus relief bill.

After the meeting with Meadows, Parker said it was “not fair” that thousands of airline workers were about to be laid off. “We’re just here to plead with everyone involved to get to a quarterly package before October 1.”

Southwest Airlines Chief Executive Gary Kelly said the initial payroll support plan “didn’t go far enough and long enough.”

American has said it plans to end service to 15 small communities without additional government assistance.

At the end of this month the $25 billion in federal payroll assistance airlines received when the coronavirus first began spreading around the world is set to expire.

Congress also set aside another $25 billion in government loans for airlines, but many have opted not to tap that funding source.

Companies such as American are now pleading for a six-month extension while they simultaneously negotiate with employees to minimize thousands of job cuts that are expected without another round of aid.

Air travel has plummeted over the last six months as the coronavirus pandemic has claimed nearly 196,000 American lives and prompted many to avoid airports and planes, seriously depressing airline revenues.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert, David Shepardson and Doina Chiacu; Editing by Steve Orlofsky and Jonathan Oatis)

White House says Trump could act unilaterally to avoid U.S. airline layoffs

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump could take executive action to avoid massive layoffs at U.S. airlines, while the coronavirus pandemic weighs on air travel and talks on a new COVID-19 stimulus bill remain stall in Congress, White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows said on Wednesday.

“We’re looking at other executive actions,” Meadows said in an online interview with Politico. “If Congress is not going to work, this president is going to get to work and solve some problems. So hopefully, we can help out the airlines and keep some of those employees from being furloughed.”

His remarks came a day after American Airlines said its workforce will shrink by 40,000, including 19,000 involuntary cuts, in October without an extension of government aid.

Meadows said he has spoken to American Airlines, as well as United Airlines, which has warned that 36,000 jobs are on the line, and to Delta Air Lines, which announced furloughs of nearly 2,000 pilots on Monday.

“So we’ve raised this issue. It would take a CARES package, I believe, to do it,” Meadows said, referring to a $3 trillion coronavirus relief package that Congress passed earlier this year.

Talks between Meadows, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer ended in early August, with top Democrats and the administration far apart on new legislation. Meadows told Politico that he is not optimistic that negotiations will restart soon.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Boeing to offer second layoff plan, CEO Calhoun sees smaller market ahead

By Bhargav Acharya

(Reuters) – Boeing Co. said on Monday it would offer employees a voluntary layoff package with pay and benefits for the second time this year, as the plane maker battles a coronavirus-induced slowdown in global air travel.

It will be offered to employees in the commercial airplanes and services businesses as well as corporate functions, Chief Executive Officer Dave Calhoun wrote in a note to employees, a copy of which was seen by Reuters.

“Unfortunately, layoffs are a hard but necessary step to align to our new reality, preserve liquidity and position ourselves for the eventual return to growth,” Calhoun said in the note.

“We anticipate seeing a significantly smaller marketplace over the next three years.”

The health crisis, which has hammered plane makers, airlines and suppliers, has added to the woes of Boeing that has been grappling with a production freeze and year-long grounding of the 737 MAX following two fatal crashes.

The company doesn’t have a set target at this time and was encouraging all eligible employees interested in the voluntary layoff package to apply, Boeing said in a statement.

The move to extend the overall workforce reductions beyond the initial 10% target is in response to employee feedback, Calhoun said.

The plane maker had said in April it would cut its 160,000-person workforce by about 10%, many of which was to be completed by the end of this year at its commercial aircraft division.

More details will be made available to the employees beginning Aug. 24, according to the CEO’s note.

(Reporting by Bhargav Acharya in Bengaluru; Editing by Arun Koyyur)