Six months after the coronavirus pandemic tore a hole in the U.S. economy, the once-promising recovery is stalling, leaving millions out of work, and threatening to push millions more — particularly women — out of the labor force entirely.
The latest evidence came Friday, when the Labor Department reported that employers added 661,000 jobs in September, far fewer than forecasters expected.
It was the third straight month of slowing job growth, a worrying trend given the scale of the challenge ahead. The economy has nearly 11 million fewer jobs than it did before the pandemic, a bigger loss than the 8.7 million at the depth of the recession a decade ago.
Economists said the report underscored the need for more federal help. “It’s disturbing that we’re seeing such a dramatic slowdown in employment gains as we head into the fall,” said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton. “This is a red flag. We need aid now.”
The September slowdown was partly a result of public-sector job losses, particularly in school districts, where payrolls fell by more than 200,000. Economists said some of those jobs would come back if more schools opened for in-person instruction. But further cuts could be looming as state and local governments reel from a collapse in tax revenues.
The unemployment rate fell to 7.9 percent, down from a record high of nearly 15 percent in April. But even that good news carried a caveat: Nearly 700,000 people left the labor force, meaning they no longer counted as unemployed. And a rising share of the unemployed report that their job losses are permanent, rather than furloughs.
The report was the last set of monthly jobs numbers — and one of the last major pieces of economic data — before the presidential election on Nov. 3.
Trump administration officials put a positive spin on the report. Larry Kudlow, the director of the National Economic Council, said on the Fox Business Network that analysts were misreading the numbers. “I think they are better than some people think,” he said. “The overall economy is looking good.”
It isn’t clear how much the economic data will matter to an election race upended by the news that President Trump tested positive for the coronavirus. But economists said recent data carried a clear message: Without a “Phase 4” spending package in Congress, the slowdown will only get worse.
“Everything depends on Phase 4 and whether we get that or not,” said Aneta Markowska, chief economist for the investment bank Jefferies. “There’s no middle ground.”
Prospects for a deal improved this week after seeming all but dead in September. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Friday floated the possibility that Mr. Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis could make an agreement more likely.
“This kind of changes the dynamic, because here they see the reality of what we have been saying all along: This is a vicious virus,” Ms. Pelosi said on MSNBC.
For small businesses in the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, the lack of federal assistance is an existential threat — and time is running out.
When the pandemic shut down movie theaters last spring, Cleveland Cinemas was able to stay afloat in part thanks to a loan under the Paycheck Protection Program. But that money is long gone. So are the cash savings that the company, which operated five theaters in the Cleveland area, had set aside to pay for new seating to help compete with big multiplexes.
Jon Forman, who has owned Cleveland Cinemas since 1977, isn’t sure what to do next. He has reopened only two of his theaters, and neither is attracting enough patrons to break even, even with fewer than 10 employees, down from 85 before the pandemic.
Many Americans remain wary of sitting indoors with strangers for two or three hours. And studios, hesitant to distribute big-budget movies when few people will pay to see them, have been delaying major releases until 2021.
Big chains may have the resources to wait for better days, but Mr. Forman isn’t sure he does. He has closed one theater permanently. Two others have been dark since March, and he is thinking about shutting the two reopened ones until demand picks up.
“We’re on a slope going down,” he said. “Without some sort of support, businesses are not going to survive.”
Stories like Mr. Forman’s reflect the mounting risks that as the crisis drags on, it will do lasting damage to the economy.
When unemployment spiked in March and April, most of the job losses were temporary layoffs or furloughs. But that is beginning to change. The number of people reporting they had been permanently let go rose to 3.8 million in September, nearly twice as many as at the height of the pandemic in April.
“The temporary layoffs in the beginning are turning more and more into permanent layoffs now as companies begin to see what their near future looks like,” said Erica Groshen, a Cornell University economist and the former head of the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Prospects are particularly grim for those who lost their jobs in the first weeks of the crisis. More than 2.4 million people have been out of work for 27 weeks or more, the formal — if somewhat arbitrary — threshold for long-term joblessness. An even bigger wave is on the way: Nearly five million people have been out of work for 15 to 26 weeks.
Research has found that people who are out of work for six months or more have a harder time getting jobs even when the economy improves, and many end up leaving the work force. That can leave lasting scars on both workers and the broader economy.
Connie Sarmiento used to work three jobs to support her family as a single mother. She lost all of them in a matter of weeks: The Grand Hyatt in San Francisco, where she worked as a telephone operator, laid her off in March. The following month, she lost her jobs working at Oracle Park, the Giants’ baseball stadium, and Chase Center, home of the N.B.A.’s Golden State Warriors.
Initially, Ms. Sarmiento was able to make ends meet thanks to the $600 a week that the federal government added onto her $450-a-week unemployment payment from the state. But the supplemental benefits expired at the end of July, and she is falling behind on her bills.
Ms. Sarmiento’s $3,000 monthly rent was due Thursday, but she has only half the money she needs to pay it. “I have to tell my landlord that I am unable to pay,” she said. “I’m afraid he’s going to tell me I have to move out. That’s really scary.”
Ms. Sarmiento hopes to return to work at the Hyatt this fall and at Oracle Park next season. But she worries about her prospects if those jobs don’t return.
“I feel hopeless,” she said. “Some of the only jobs I can find are in warehouses. I’m 60 years old and I don’t know if I can lift big, heavy stuff anymore. My body is getting weak.”
The September data carried particularly grim news about the pandemic’s impact on women. Initial job losses were concentrated among employers with heavily female work forces, like the hospitality and retail industries. While employment in those businesses has begun to bounce back, many women have been unable to return to work because they are disproportionately shouldering the burden of having children home from school.
The number of women working fell by 143,000 in September, and the share of women working or actively looking for work — a measure known as the labor force participation rate — dropped to 55.6 percent from 56.1 percent. Apart from April and May 2020, that is the lowest reading for women’s labor force participation since 1987.
Economists worry that the unexpected pause in their careers could prove to be a long-term setback for many women.
“We know that women leaving the work force to care for children for a while has lasting effects on their earnings, their seniority and their climb up the ladder,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with the career site ZipRecruiter. “Career interruptions have a huge effect.”
When schools and child care centers closed in March, Darsheen Sargent began bringing her 11-year-old daughter with her to her job as a home health aide in the Seattle area. During the day, she juggled two jobs at the same time — caring for her client, and running into the other room to help her daughter adjust to online schooling.
But Ms. Sargent, 48, grew increasingly concerned about the risk she posed to herself, her daughter, and her client by continuing to go to work each day. And she found balancing work and child care too much to handle. In mid-April, she decided to take a leave of absence from her job.
But the relief she felt at being able to focus purely on her daughter’s needs was quickly replaced by anxiety over keeping up with her bills now that she was no longer working. She has had to borrow money from friends to pay her rent, utilities and car payment.
As soon as schools and child care centers reopen, she plans to return to work. But she has no idea how long that will take.
“As a single parent, I’m the sole provider for my daughter, and I’m just doing the best I can to manage,” she said.
Jeanna Smialek, Alan Rappeport and Emily Cochrane contributed reporting.