Hiring by U.S. employers accelerated sharply amid an improving public health outlook and a new round of $1,400 relief payments.



The U.S. job market appears to be in full bloom this spring. This morning, the Labor Department reported that U.S. employers added 916,000 jobs last month. That's the strongest gain since August. Job gains for January and February were also revised upwards. NPR's Scott Horsley is with us.

Scott, good morning.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: I love good news on a Friday. I mean, this is a big deal, right? What's behind it?

HORSLEY: Rachel, consumers have more money in their pockets - the federal government's been sending out those $1,400 relief payments - and they also have more places to spend it. You know, as coronavirus restrictions are relaxed around the country and as vaccinations are multiplying, people feel more comfortable eating out and shopping. We've seen increased traffic at restaurants and retail shops. That means more hiring in those businesses. It's the opposite of what we saw during the fall and winter, when consumers were locking down and jobs were drying up. This is how Nela Richardson puts it. She's the chief economist at the big payroll processing firm ADP.

NELA RICHARDSON: The labor market recovery has awakened from its winter slump, when there was a surge in new COVID cases in the last three months of 2020.

HORSLEY: We also saw more schools reopening in March, and that means hiring more bus drivers and lunchroom workers and classroom aides. And construction companies did a lot of hiring as the weather improved after those bad winter storms back in February.

MARTIN: The unemployment rate fell last month, too - fell to 6%. Where does all this put the overall jobs recovery?

HORSLEY: Yeah, unemployment was down by two-tenths, which is good. And it's also encouraging that more than 300,000 people joined the workforce last month. Some of those people might have been sitting out the pandemic in earlier months, not looking for work during the wintertime. The labor force participation rate, which we watch pretty closely, inched up just a bit.

We've still got a long way to go to get back to full employment, though. Of the 22 million jobs that were lost a year ago when the pandemic took hold in the U.S., we have so far recovered about 62%. So that leaves about 8.4 million jobs to go. So you know, March was certainly a good month for the job market. We need eight or nine or 10 more good months just like it.

MARTIN: How likely are we to get that?

HORSLEY: We could see a continued surge. There's certainly a lot of pent-up demand out there. People who've kept their jobs during this period have saved up a lot of money, and we could see a surge in travel and entertainment and all the things people haven't been able to do for the last year...

MARTIN: Right.

HORSLEY: ...As people feel comfortable. But as Nela Richardson says, that all depends on keeping the pandemic in check.

RICHARDSON: The continuation of this jobs recovery will depend largely on continued improvement in the containment of the virus through vaccination and other measures.

HORSLEY: This report is actually a snapshot of what was going on in the middle of March. In the weeks since then, we have seen an uptick in new coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. We also saw an increase last week in new claims for unemployment. So as Dr. Fauci told MORNING EDITION today, it's a race between efforts to get more people vaccinated and protected from the pandemic and the evolution of the virus to become more resistant. And the winner of that race is going to determine both our public health outlook and the health of the U.S. job market.

MARTIN: NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley. Thank you.

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