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Job numbers are expected to have improved in September

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

A few months ago, forecasters thought September would be a banner month for hiring. Schools would reopen, freeing parents to go back to work. Vaccines would put the pandemic in the rearview mirror, and the supplemental unemployment benefits that some employers blamed for keeping workers on the sidelines would expire nationwide. Well, it hasn't exactly worked out that way. A surge of new coronavirus infections in late summer put the brakes on hiring. Still, when the September jobs numbers are released tomorrow, they're expected to show some improvement, if not the stellar job growth that was hoped for at the beginning of the summer. NPR's Scott Horsley reports.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Let's start with those pandemic unemployment benefits. More than 7 million people dropped off the rolls in early September as emergency programs came to an end nationwide. Many employers hope that would push more people back into the workforce. While evidence so far is slim, Mike Parra thinks it's happening.

MIKE PARRA: We saw it. The moment it stopped in Ohio and in Kentucky, we saw a mad dash into the buildings.

HORSLEY: Para is the Americas region CEO for the delivery company DHL Express. He's been trying since June to staff up for the busy holiday season that's now just around the corner.

PARRA: It's not been easy. It's definitely been different than in the past as a result of, first and foremost, the pandemic in itself, the second wave, the third wave.

HORSLEY: That delta wave of coronavirus cases cast a heavy shadow over the job market in August. Employers added just 235,000 jobs that month, compared to more than a million jobs in July. Restaurants and retail shops actually cut workers in August as fear of the virus discouraged customers from eating out and shopping. Since then, though, the health outlook has improved. New infections, hospitalizations and deaths have all been falling in recent weeks. Chief economist Nela Richardson, who's with the payroll processing company ADP, thinks September will show significantly stronger job gains as well.

NELA RICHARDSON: This is due to the massive restaurant and bar industry, which will continue providing a significant tailwind to growth.

HORSLEY: Most schools have reopened this fall, and while there may be less certainty they can stay open, that is providing an opening for more parents to go back to work. Census surveys show the number of people who aren't working because they have kids at home has dropped from nearly 8 million in midsummer to about 5 million today. Presumably, a lot of parents who left the workforce during the pandemic will come back once their concerns about child care and the virus are addressed. For older workers who dropped out, that's not so certain. Tim Fiore, who conducts a monthly survey of factory managers, says a lot of older workers are leaving the manufacturing industry and taking their skills and experience when they go.

TIM FIORE: 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 change from pre-pandemic, when, you know, people kind of worked well into their 60s and well after 65.

HORSLEY: Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell, who's 68, is not convinced that all those older workers have drawn their last paychecks. As the public health outlook and the health of the job market improves, Powell hopes at least some experienced hands decide to come back to work.

JEROME POWELL: The lure is that people don't come out of retirement, 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.

HORSLEY: With millions of unfilled jobs, the U.S. economy needs more workers of every age. So when tomorrow's report comes out, analysts will be looking not only at how many people were hired in September. They'll also be paying special attention to how many people were looking for work. Scott Horsley, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.