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UPDATED: April 5, 2021

Breaking down the monthly BLS job report

March beat economist expectations, signaling the growing impact of mass vaccinations and loosened business restrictions.

Below are the most recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports on “The Employment Situation” — the bureau’s term for the monthly jobs report.

Each report provides data on the month prior (September’s report covers August numbers, for example), and numbers are regularly adjusted in future reports. Unadjusted numbers are noted in the text.

Unemployment rate
Percentage of workers who are jobless despite “ability” to work. Latest numbers are unadjusted.
Kathryn Moody/HR Dive, data from BLS
Jobs added
Total of non-farm jobs added to the U.S. market. Latest numbers are unadjusted.
Kathryn Moody/HR Dive, data from BLS
  • March 2021
    6.0% unemployment rate
    916,000 jobs added

    Total payroll jobs rose by 916,000 in March, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced, beating economist expectations by more than 300,000, according to Bloomberg. Unemployment fell to 6%.

    Gains were largely driven by improvements in coronavirus vaccine distribution as well as loosened restrictions on businesses after long periods of lockdown, Michael Smith, global CEO of Randstad Sourceright, said in an email statement. Hospitality saw notable job gains, for example.

    The U.S. is still down 8.4 million jobs from pre-pandemic levels, however, according to a blog post from the U.S. Department of Labor. Additionally, unemployment remains unequal; the unemployment rate rose to 6% for Asians in March, according to BLS, and while the unemployment rate for Black workers dropped to 9.6% in March, it is still the highest unemployment rate of any racial category.

    Released April 2, 2021

  • Feb. 2021
    6.2% unemployment rate
    379,000 jobs added

    Total payroll employment rose by 379,000 jobs in February, marking the strongest month of growth since September 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The unemployment rate dropped very slightly to 6.2%.

    Most of the gains were in leisure and hospitality, BLS said, reflecting how some states and jurisdictions are opening up as COVID-19 vaccines become more accessible. The big vaccine push and drop in virus cases, generally, has eased some pressure on the economy, according to various media reports.

    “These jobs will last if the pandemic subsides and consumers feel safe returning to businesses,” Andrew Challenger, SVP of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, said in a statement emailed to HR Dive.

    Economists remain cautiously optimistic of the current trend.

    “We are still 11.9 million jobs short of trend,” Jason Furman, a professor of practice at Harvard University and a former Obama economics adviser, said in a tweet. “February was OK but at that pace would take 4 ½ years to recover.”

    Released March 5, 2020

  • Jan. 2021
    6.3% unemployment rate
    49,000 jobs added

    Payroll employment “changed little” in January, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported, with only 49,000 jobs added. Unemployment dropped 0.4 percentage points to 6.3% and unemployed persons fell to 10.1 million, and while "both measures are much lower than their April 2020 highs, they remain well above their pre-pandemic levels in February 2020."

    Notably, the labor force participation rate also remains below pre-pandemic levels, signaling that some of the unemployment rate’s drop could be due to people leaving the workforce entirely, according to BLS and various media reports.

    While the report showed minor signs of continued recovery, it "is very clear our economy is still in trouble," President Joe Biden said in remarks from the White House. "A once-in-a-century virus has decimated our economy, and it’s still wreaking havoc on our economy today."

    Released Feb. 5, 2021

  • Dec. 2020
    6.7% unemployment rate
    140,000 jobs lost

    Total payroll employment declined by 140,000 jobs in December 2020, the first net decrease recorded since April 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced. Unemployment remained at 6.7%.

    AP called the job market "sharply uneven," with most losses – driven by an increase in COVID-19 cases – concentrated in restaurants, hotels and venues; restaurants alone shed 372,000 jobs. And it could get worse, experts said, as the pandemic continues and employers wait for the vaccine to roll out.

    "The job-letting will not end before the pandemic," Andrew Challenger, senior vice president of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., said in a statement. "In fact, we likely will not see the full ramifications of this downturn until years after the pandemic ends, when we get a better picture of just how many jobs were wiped out completely during this period."

    Karen Fichuk, CEO, Randstad North America and Randstad N.V. executive board member, noted in a statement that uncertainty around vaccine distribution may "decreas[e] consumer spending and, in turn, tak[e] an additional toll on the labor market."

    Released Jan. 8, 2021

  • November 2020
    6.7% unemployment rate
    245,000 jobs gained

    Payroll employment rose by 245,000 jobs in November, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported, far below economists' expectations – a sign that recovery has slowed in the wake of rising coronavirus cases. General improvement "has moderated in recent months," BLS said.

    While the unemployment rate dropped to 6.7%, that may have been from workers abandoning the job hunt; the labor force participation rate is 1.9 percentage points below February’s level, BLS said. Long-term unemployment – those out of work for 27 weeks or more – also rose by 385,000, which could signal that once-temporary unemployment is becoming permanent for some workers, The New York Times reported.

    Various forms of government relief, including expanded unemployment insurance benefits, will sunset by the end of the month if Congress does not pass further COVID-19 relief.

    Released Dec. 4, 2020

  • October 2020
    6.9% unemployment rate
    638,000 jobs added

    Job recovery continued in October, with 638,000 payroll jobs added, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). The unemployment rate declined to 6.9%.

    Optimism regarding continued growth is cautious, however; despite gains, employment remains 10 million jobs below its February level, BLS said, and long-term unemployment continues to climb. Support for workers from Congress may continue to be delayed, as well, in the wake of the election. Democrat and former Vice President Joe Biden was declared president-elect Nov. 7, though the Senate will likely retain a Republican majority, AP reported, meaning aid may be postponed until 2021. The Families First Coronavirus Response Act, one of several bills to support workers in the wake of the pandemic, will sunset Dec. 31, 2020.

    Women, in particular, may be feeling the effects of the economic downturn, Rebecca Henderson, CEO of Randstad Global Businesses, said in a statement: “It is imperative that the next administration support women who are being forced to choose between their careers and caring for their children as the loss of women from the labor force could have a $1 trillion impact on the global economy.”

    Released Nov. 6, 2020