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Labor Department Releases Job Numbers For May

NOEL KING, HOST:

U.S. employers added 559,000 jobs last month. That's an improvement over April, and yet millions of people are out of work, and employers say they are finding it hard to find workers. NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley is here to update us on the numbers. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.

KING: So this is an improvement over April. It is still a slower pace of job growth than we saw in March. Where is hiring happening?

HORSLEY: We're seeing a lot of hiring where you would expect as businesses reopen and more vaccinated Americans venture out. Bars and restaurants added 186,000 jobs last month. Amusement parks and recreation centers added another 58,000. We know there's a lot of demand in those industries. An index of service sector activity that came out yesterday showed business growing at a record pace. Anthony Nieves, who compiles that index for the Institute for Supply Management, characterizes the picture this way.

ANTHONY NIEVES: The pent-up demand is real. I think it's almost like a jail break. People are looking to get out and do things, and definitely the demand is exceeding the supply.

HORSLEY: So you'd expect that to translate to a lot of hiring. But you also saw job cuts in some areas. Construction lost about 20,000 jobs last month. Retail showed some small job losses. The industries that are growing probably would have hired even more people if they had more applicants. Some employers report paying a $50 bonus just to show up for an interview.

KING: Just to show up for an interview (laughter), OK. So why - if millions of people are unemployed, why are employers having so much trouble finding people to come to work?

HORSLEY: And that's the paradox. A number of explanations have been offered. Some workers are wary of taking jobs for health reasons, especially if they or someone in their family is not yet vaccinated. Some people might be busy caring for children who are not attending in-person school right now. And then a third factor that some businesses point to are the enhanced unemployment benefits that the federal government's been paying, including the extra $300 a week. Those benefits could make a job less attractive, especially in a low-wage industry like restaurants or hotels. And that's why we have now half the states, all with Republican governors, saying they're going to end those benefits ahead of schedule this summer, in some cases as early as next week. Most those states announced that move after that disappointing jobs report for April.

KING: Where does the unemployment rate stand now?

HORSLEY: Unemployment dipped to 5.8% in May from 6.1% the month before. That's partly because people found jobs, but it also reflects some people dropping out of the job market altogether. And that's the last thing you want to see when employers are beating the bushes for more help. It's interesting. We saw more women coming into the workforce last month while more men were leaving the workforce. That's the opposite of what we saw in April. What we'd like to see is more men and women coming off the sidelines. And that's what we'll be watching for in the months ahead.

KING: NPR chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.