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U.S. Unemployment Rate Continued To Drop In October

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

News on the economy now. The nation's job market is recovering slowly from the coronavirus recession. Unemployment fell sharply last month to 6.9%, and employers added nearly 640,000 jobs. In ordinary times, that would be a blockbuster month. But job growth has been slowing, and there are worries that a slowdown could get worse during the winter. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. Scott, let's start with these new numbers. What do they forecast for us?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: They tell us that we are digging out of the deep hole we were in, but we're not back in the sunlight yet. Over the last six months, the United States has regained about 54% of the jobs that were lost back in March and April. Some industries have found ways to operate pretty successfully during the pandemic. Construction companies added a lot of jobs last month, thanks to strong demand for housing. Manufacturing also had a good month.

But businesses that rely on bringing people together, like restaurants or airlines and live entertainment venues, they continue to struggle. And that's likely to be the case as long as the virus is out there. Right now infections are speeding up, not slowing down. We had nearly 120,000 new cases just yesterday. Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell warned this week that's the kind of thing that could make consumers nervous about going out and shopping or eating in restaurants.

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JEROME POWELL: They may pull back in a situation where, suddenly, the cases are everywhere in your city or your state. That could weigh on economic activity. One would expect that it would.

HORSLEY: We also saw a significant drop in government jobs last month. Some of that was expected, as temporary census workers wrapped up their headcount. But we also saw nearly 160,000 cuts on public school payrolls, mostly support workers who were let go while students are studying remotely.

CORNISH: At the same time, the unemployment rate fell to just 6.9%, as we said earlier, and that's less than half of what it was back in April. What's going on there?

HORSLEY: Yeah, that's encouraging. The jobless rate dropped by a full percentage point in October, even though a lot of people joined or rejoined the workforce. The month before, you might remember, we saw a huge exit from the labor market as the new school year began and a lot of moms and some dads had to quit working to take care of their kids. That was certainly worrisome. We did see a partial turnaround last month. Almost three-quarters of a million people came back into the workforce in October, and women joined at nearly twice the rate that men did. So that's a positive sign. But there's still a long way to go to get back to a really healthy job market.

CORNISH: So what's the big picture here, if you have more than 20 million people who are collecting jobless benefits - right? - another million plus filed for unemployment just last week?

HORSLEY: Yeah, Audie, the picture is really mixed. You know, the good news is more than half the jobs we lost have come back, but the bad news is millions of people are still out of work. And it's looking like, for a lot of them, it could be a long time before they can find new jobs. We also know that government relief payments that helped to keep families afloat early in the pandemic have largely run out now, and Congress has been slow to approve any additional aid.

Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell did say this week he would like to see another relief bill passed before the end of the year. But he also pointed to that falling unemployment rate as a sign that that package ought to be limited.

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MITCH MCCONNELL: I do think we need another one, but I think it reinforces the argument that I've been making the last few months that something smaller, rather than throwing another $3 trillion at this issue, is more appropriate.

HORSLEY: So any hopes for a big relief bill may be off the table. At a minimum, Congress will face pressure to extend some emergency unemployment programs that are currently supporting more than 13 million people, Audie, and that are set to expire in less than two months.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley.

Thank you for your reporting.

HORSLEY: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.