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U.S. Employers Added 559,000 Jobs In May

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

We got our monthly X-ray of the job market today. And the results were good, but not great. U.S. employers added 559,000 jobs in May, which is a big improvement from April's disappointing figure. President Biden cheered the results as a sign that the economy's on the move.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: This is progress, historic progress, progress that's pulling our economy out of the worst crisis it's been in 100 years.

SHAPIRO: Progress, but job growth in May was still slower than many people were hoping for. A lot of employers say they'd like to hire more people, but they're having a hard time finding workers. NPR's Scott Horsley is here to explain. Hi, Scott.

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

SHAPIRO: We know that consumers are spending more freely as fears of the pandemic fade. How is that showing up in the job numbers?

HORSLEY: Restaurants and recreation centers added a lot of workers last month. More people got vaccinated and started to enjoy their newfound freedom. But a lot of job openings in those industries are also going unfilled. I talked to Nick Kokonas, who co-owns several restaurants in Chicago and also runs an online reservation service. He says he'd like to hire another 150 people to keep up with demand, but it's not easy.

NICK KOKONAS: I talk to restaurants every day, friends, colleagues, competitors. Everybody is calling each other, saying, are you able to hire anybody? And the answer, of course, is yes, you are able to but not as quickly as you'd like. We had a job fair last week and had 25 or so people show up. Two years ago when we'd have a job here, we'd have 100, 150.

HORSLEY: And by the way, Ari, Kokonas says the lowest-paid workers in his restaurants make about $16.25 an hour.

SHAPIRO: So explain this disconnect. We know that millions of people are out of work. Why are employers having trouble hiring?

HORSLEY: There's probably a variety of factors. Obviously, some people are still nervous about catching the virus. Others might be busy looking after children. There is some progress on both those fronts, though. More than half the adults in the country are now fully vaccinated. That's up from about a third when this job survey was conducted in mid-May. Also today, we saw that schools and daycare providers added about 160,000 jobs last month. That means there will be fewer kids stuck at home with mom and dad. So White House economist Cecilia Rouse says those hires should act as job multipliers in the months ahead.

CECILIA ROUSE: As schools have been able to reopen and childcare centers have been able to reopen, that has freed working parents, particularly women, to go back into the labor force, as well. So that is the multiplier that is there.

HORSLEY: And we did see more women entering the workforce last month, even as a number of men dropped out.

SHAPIRO: We've heard some business owners and politicians make the argument that the extra $300 a week in unemployment benefits that the government's been offering is discouraging people from looking for work. Fact check that for us. What impact does that have on the job market?

HORSLEY: You know, economists are really divided on this question, but we do have 25 states now, all of them led by Republican governors, that have decided to terminate those enhanced benefits early, in some cases as early as next week. The other 25 states will keep paying the benefits through the summer, but then they'll phase out in early September. So if they are keeping people on the sidelines, they won't be doing so much longer. The president said this morning it makes sense to phase out the enhanced benefits in the fall. Biden insists the economy is on the right path, but he concedes there are likely to be some more bumps along the way.

SHAPIRO: Bumps like what?

HORSLEY: It's not just labor that's in short supply. You know, businesses are wrestling with all kinds of shortages, from computer chips to cardboard boxes. That means longer wait times, in some cases higher prices. You have to remember, though, all of this is a byproduct of an economy that's springing back to life. And Nick Kokonas says it feels like a rebirth.

KOKONAS: Look. I went to a restaurant that my family loves here in Chicago a couple days ago, and it felt great. Everyone was happy and smiling. And the servers were happy. And the owner was happy and stressed out. And that's normal. If the owner of a restaurant's stressed out, we're back to a different kind of normal.

HORSLEY: So even with all the headaches, Ari, it's not a bad place to be.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Scott Horsley, thank you.

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

Corrected: June 5, 2021 at 12:00 AM EDT
The headline incorrectly said 599,000 jobs were added in May. In fact, 559,000 jobs were added.