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The U.S. Adds 1.4 Million Jobs In August, But Job Growth Is Slowing Down

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

The headline is good - 1.4 million new jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.4%. But it comes with a big but. There are still 11 million fewer jobs than there were back in February, before the coronavirus pandemic clamped down on the U.S. economy. And with a $600 unemployment boost now more than a month behind us, people still without work are really suffering. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is here to break it down. Hi, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good to be with you, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Would you give us your overall assessment of this report?

HORSLEY: It's certainly positive that U.S. employers added 1.4 million jobs in August, but that is fewer jobs than were added in July, and July's gains were smaller than June. So there does seem to be some loss of momentum here. The August numbers were also boosted in part by some 238,000 temporary workers who were hired to help complete the 2020 census. Without them, job growth would have been just 1.1 million last month. We did see gains in restaurants and retail shops, two sectors that were really hard-hit by the pandemic early on and are slowly crawling back. There was one other bit of color in today's report. Almost 1 out of 4 people who had a job last month was working from home because of the coronavirus, and that number was down just ever so slightly from the month before.

PFEIFFER: Scott, you happened to be at the Federal Reserve today with Steve Inskeep as he interviewed Fed chairman Jerome Powell. What is Powell's take on the job situation and how the economy is faring?

HORSLEY: He was pretty positive. He has been watching for a slowdown because of the spike in infections we had this summer, especially in the South and West. And, of course, as you mentioned, we saw the end of that supplemental unemployment payment at the end of July. Both of those really could have taken the air out of the recovery, but Powell says they don't seem to have done so, at least not yet.

JEROME POWELL: There may be a modest slowing in the pace of improvement, but improvement goes on. And in the labor market, I would say it goes on, you know, at least at the pace that we've expected.

HORSLEY: You know, when the Fed made its last forecast in the early part of the summer, they were predicting unemployment would be 9.3% at the end of this year, so the drop to 8.4% in August is better than a lot of people were expecting.

PFEIFFER: But what about the people who've been totally left behind in the economy - unemployed people with no savings, people facing eviction? Did Powell address what could be done for them?

HORSLEY: It's certainly a concern because it may very well be that the easy jobs to recover have already been recovered. The low-hanging fruit has now been picked. And Powell has been saying for some time that there are parts of the economy that will take a long time to recover, so some people may be out of work for a long time. The Fed chairman left it to Congress to figure out the details, but he did suggest that another round of relief measures may be necessary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POWELL: We shouldn't let those people lose everything they have and have to move out or be evicted and move in with family. That's also not going to be good for containing the COVID spread. So I do think we ought to do everything we can as a country do to keep those people - I won't say make them whole, but I would say to look out for them.

PFEIFFER: All right, Scott. So this is still not a fast-track economic recovery, not that V-shaped recovery that's preferable to the slower U-shaped recovery we often hear about - anything else Powell says needs to be done or could be done?

HORSLEY: Well, ultimately, the Fed has said that the future of the economy depends on the path of the pandemic. But the Fed chairman did offer his own sort of public health advisory this afternoon.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

POWELL: To get us back to full employment, we're going to need to get the spread of the disease under control, and the best way to do that short of arriving at a vaccine is to take these social distancing measures and employ them. That means masks. That means keeping your distance and things like that. Those things actually enable people to go back to work and not get sick.

HORSLEY: The chairman did take his own mask off long enough for the interview, but he did have it ready.

PFEIFFER: And we'll note that our listeners can hear the rest of that Powell interview with Steve Inskeep on Morning Edition Monday. That was NPR's Scott Horsley. Scott, thank you.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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