A few months ago, forecasters thought September would be a banner month for hiring.
Schools would reopen, freeing parents to go back to work. Supplemental unemployment benefits that some employers blamed for keeping workers on the sidelines would expire. Most importantly, widespread vaccinations would put the pandemic in the rearview mirror.
It hasn't exactly worked out that way.
Employers added just 194,000 jobs in September, according to a monthly snapshot from the Labor Department. That's even worse than the anemic job gains in August and far below the pace of hiring earlier in the summer, when employers were adding around a million jobs a month.
"It's just a bumpy recovery," says Nela Richardson, chief economist at the payroll processing firm ADP. "And it's a recovery that's still linked to the pandemic and the delta variant."
A surge of new coronavirus cases slammed the brakes on hiring in August, when employers added just 366,000 jobs. Restaurants and retail shops actually cut workers that month, as fear of the virus discouraged customers from eating out and shopping.
Still there's some room for hope.
Since August, the health outlook has improved. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths have all fallen in recent weeks.
Bars and restaurants added 29,000 jobs in September while retailers added 56,000, suggesting consumers are tiptoeing out and spending money again. The entertainment and recreation industries also added 43,000 jobs.
Last month's employment picture also may have been artificially depressed by statistical adjustments. The report shows local school districts cut 144,000 jobs in September, but that could be misleading. The Labor Department tries to correct for seasonal hiring patterns, but those adjustments have been thrown off this year by pandemic changes to the school calendar. Last month's job "cuts" in education may have been payback for apparent hiring earlier in the summer.
The unemployment rate dipped to 4.8% in September, from 5.2% in August, although some of that decline resulted from people dropping out of the workforce.
Employers hoped the expiration of pandemic unemployment programs would spur more people to return to work. So far, there's little sign of that. While more than 7 million people dropped off the unemployment rolls when programs expired nationwide in early September, the number of people working or looking for work last month actually shrank.
Still, some employers are confident that ending benefits will lead to more job applicants.
"We saw it," says Mike Parra, Americas region CEO for the delivery company DHL Express. "The moment [benefits] stopped in Ohio and in Kentucky, we saw a mad dash into the buildings."
Parra has been trying since June to staff up for the busy holiday season.
"It's not been easy," he says. "It's definitely been different than in the past as a result of, first and foremost, the pandemic in itself."
Schools reopen and that may be good for employers
The reopening of schools this fall could give a boost to the job market by allowing more parents to go back to work.
Presumably, a lot of parents who left the workforce during the pandemic will go back once their concerns about child care and the virus are addressed.
One of the biggest unknowns, however, is whether older people who dropped out will return to work.
"It does seem that a lot of people who are retirement age are opting out rather than staying in the workforce, which is a big, big change from pre-pandemic, when people worked well into their 60s and well after 65," said Tim Fiore, who conducts a monthly survey of factory managers for the Institute for Supply Management.
Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who is 68, is not convinced that all those older workers have drawn their last paycheck. As the public health outlook and the job market improve, Powell hopes at least some experienced hands will decide to come back to work.
"The lore is that people don't come out of retirement," Powell said last week during a congressional hearing. "Except I would say, all during the last few years of the very long expansion that ended with the pandemic, we were constantly surprised to the upside on participation, including older people staying in the workforce longer."