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Monthly Unemployment Numbers: Job Market Recovering Slowly During Pandemic

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

We have another picture today of how the pandemic has affected the economy. The United States added a record 4.8 million jobs in June. It's a partial recovery from the shutdown months of March and April. But we received this June snapshot in July, when soaring infections are forcing some businesses to close again already. NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley has the big picture for us. Hi there, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: Let's start with the new jobs report. What's it say?

HORSLEY: More than 2 million of those new jobs that were added last month were in leisure and hospitality - you know, bars, restaurants, entertainment. That's a sector that was really hard hit early in the pandemic. It's making a shaky comeback now. Likewise, retailers added more than 700,000 jobs in June as stores reopened. Factories added more than 350,000 jobs. Even government added some jobs after big cuts in the two previous months.

The unemployment rate, Steve, ticked down a bit to 11.1%. And the biggest improvement there was for Latino workers. African Americans so a smaller drop. And, in fact, the jobless rate among African Americans is now the highest in the country at 15.4%.

INSKEEP: Wow.

HORSLEY: You might remember, last month, there was some talk that the official unemployment rates were artificially low because some people who were unemployed were being misclassified as working.

INSKEEP: Yes.

HORSLEY: There's still some of that happening. But the Labor Department says the problem is shrinking. So even if you take out the misclassification, there is a clear downward trend in the unemployment rate. But keep in mind, unemployment is still very high by historical standards. And just today, we got word that another 1.4 people applied for state unemployment benefits last week.

INSKEEP: One-point-four million people applied for state unemployment benefits. So rather than Great Depression levels of unemployment, which some people feared, we're merely having, if I can put it that way, very severe recession levels of employment at this point - a little over 11% and some improvement. But at the same time, Scott, infections have gone up. There was a record number of people reported with coronavirus yesterday, more than 50,000. How does that change the job picture?

HORSLEY: It certainly complicates it. I spoke this week with Sixto Zermeno (ph). He's one of those new workers from June. He's a bellman at a resort in Las Vegas. He was out of work for several months during the spring and then went back to work early last month when casinos reopened. He'd only been back on the job a few days, though, when he got sick with the coronavirus. And while he's feeling better now, he's still in quarantine.

SIXTO ZERMENO: I was never scared, you know, of getting the virus. I'm a hard worker. So if you tell me to go to work, I'm going to go to work. But I feel nervous now because how contagious this is. I've never - you know, how easy this spreads.

HORSLEY: The union that represents Zermeno has filed a lawsuit against several casino operators, saying they're not doing enough to protect their employees. And it's a sign, Steve, of, you know, just how precarious this moment is both in terms of people's health and also the health of the broader economy.

INSKEEP: Well, Scott, when you tell me that 2 million of the new jobs or the added jobs in June were in areas like hospitality and restaurants, that makes me wonder what's happening now as governors in some states have to shut down restaurants again.

HORSLEY: Right. Those new shutdown orders are not reflected in today's report. So you could say these numbers are a little bit stale even though the report just came out within the hour. It's - this is a snapshot of the job market as it was about three weeks ago in the middle of June. And since that time, in the weeks since then, we've seen bars shutter a second time in Texas, Florida, large swaths of California. Arizona's closed bars as well as gyms and water parks and movie theaters for the next month.

We've also learned during this pandemic that even if there isn't a shutdown order from the government, whenever there's a spike in new infections, people get more cautious about going out and spending money. Bartender Karen Schenck (ph) saw that drop in business at a bar where she works in Tucson.

KAREN SCHENCK: You go from making $80 in tips in a couple of hours and now you're doing $15. We're risking our health for peanuts. That's where that whole fight with yourself inside is of, you know, I love my boss. I want him to succeed. I love my health. (Laughter) I want to keep it.

HORSLEY: And, Steve, as more states are now struggling with the acceleration of infections, we're likely to hear more stories like that. It just underscores the message - we weren't going to get a robust economic recovery until we get control of this virus.

INSKEEP: Scott, thanks for the insights.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

INSKEEP: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.