U.S. hiring downshifted abruptly in August with the smallest jobs gain in seven months, complicating a potential decision by the Federal Reserve to begin scaling back monetary support in the coming months.
Nonfarm payrolls increased 235,000 last month after an upwardly revised 1.05 million gain in July, a Labor Department report showed Friday. The unemployment rate fell to 5.2%.
The median estimate in a Bloomberg survey of economists was for a 733,000 monthly advance in August. The yield on the 10-year Treasury note reversed an initial decline. Stock-index futures fluctuated.
The deceleration in hiring likely reflects both growing fears about the rapidly spreading delta variant of COVID-19 and difficulties filling vacant positions. In August, 5.6 million people reported they were unable to work because of the pandemic, up from 5.2 million a month earlier, the Labor Department said.
The surge in infections, which has already curbed consumer activity and disrupted in-person schooling and return-to-office plans, may have led businesses to grow more cautious about hiring and dissuaded some workers from pursuing high-contact employment opportunities.
Employment in leisure and hospitality was flat in August, held back by a 42,000 decrease in payrolls at restaurants and bars. Retail trade, construction, government and health care employment also declined last month.
Fed officials have emphasized the importance of the monthly employment reports as a guiding metric for the timing of when to begin reducing its asset purchases. The disappointing report reinforces the central bank’s data-driven approach to the timing of tapering.
U.S. payrolls are still 5.3 million below their pre-pandemic level.
Meantime, the participation rate — the share of Americans who are employed or looking for work — was unchanged last month at 61.7% and remains restrained by persistent child-care challenges and virus concerns.
Many economists and parents had pointed to September as the month when those factors would have largely abated, but the delta variant has pushed back that timeline.
While delta has disrupted the labor market recovery, Fed Chair Jerome Powell emphasized in his Aug. 27 speech that “the prospects are good for continued progress toward maximum employment.”