The U.S. economy added 661,000 jobs in September, suggesting the labor market's recovery from the coronavirus pandemic is beginning to plateau amid fading government relief money and a gradually widening virus caseload.
The Labor Department's payroll report released Friday is the last before the Nov. 3 presidential election, in which the coronavirus pandemic and the subsequent economic recession have been major issues.
It showed the unemployment rate unexpectedly fell to 7.9% from 8.4%.
Economists surveyed by Refinitiv expected the report to show that unemployment dropped to 8.2% and the economy added 850,000 jobs.
It's well below the combined 7.5 million jobs added in May and June before hiring cooled in July, with growth of 1.9 million positions, and in August, with 1.4 million. There are still roughly 10.7 million more out-of-work Americans than there were in February before the pandemic hit, according to the report.
"These data are consistent with a labor market that is rebounding, albeit at a slower pace than a few months ago, which should be enough to support consumers and consumption," said Sameer Samana, senior global market strategist at Wells Fargo. "While risks remain, such as election- and COVID-19-related uncertainty, we believe investors should continue to remain fully invested."
Markets, already lower after the news that President Trump and his wife contracted COVID-19, slid following the report, with all three major indexes down in the early afternoon.
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Leisure and hospitality, one of the industries hit hardest by the pandemic, once again led in terms of job growth, with gains of 318,000. Retail added 142,000 workers, and health care and social assistance payrolls rose by 108,000.
Professional and business services increased by 89,000 and the transportation and warehousing sector grew by 74,000. Manufacturing added 66,000 and financial activities rose by 37,000.
Several large employers, however, have recently warned of, or made, job cuts.
Disney laid off 28,000 workers, mostly at its two U.S. theme parks. United and American Airlines sent furlough notices to 32,000 employees on Wednesday after federal COVID aid expired, and Royal Dutch Shell said it planned to cut between 7,000 and 9,000 jobs by the end of 2022.
The report comes as a $300-a-week federal unemployment boost that President Trump issued at the beginning of August begins to expire in some states.
Economists have urged Congress to overcome a month-long stalemate and pass another round of emergency relief for workers and businesses reeling from the pandemic and have warned that without additional stimulus, the recovery could stall.