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Unemployment falls, hiring slows before election

WASHINGTON >> The final jobs report before Election Day a month from now showed hiring slowed in September even as the U.S. unemployment rate fell to 7.9% — a mixed result for President Donald Trump, who has staked his reelection in part on the economy.

The Labor Department said Friday that employers added just 661,000 jobs last month amid the coronavirus outbreak, down from 1.5 million in August and 1.8 million in July.

Unemployment fell from 8.4% in August, but that mainly reflected a decline in the number of people seeking work, rather than a surge in hiring. The government doesn’t count people as unemployed if they aren’t actively looking for a job.

“There seems to be a worrisome loss of momentum,” said Drew Matus, an economist at MetLife Investment Management. “There’s a lot of caution on the part of employers.”

With September’s hiring gain, the economy has now recovered slightly more than half the 22 million jobs wiped out by the coronavirus, which has killed over 200,000 Americans and infected more than 7 million. With many businesses and customers plagued by fear and uncertainty, some economists say it could take as long as late 2023 for the job market to fully recover.

This week, moreover, brought a new wave of layoff announcements reflecting the continuing slump in travel and tourism: Disney is cutting 28,000 jobs, Allstate will shed 3,800, and U.S. airlines said as many as 40,000 employees are losing their jobs this month as federal aid to the industry expires.

In another problematic sign in Friday’s report, the number of laid-off workers who say their jobs are gone for good rose from 3.4 million to 3.8 million.

While unemployment has tumbled from April, when it topped out at 14.7%, it is still high by historical standards. For the Trump administration, the pandemic recession has been a whiplash, with unemployment soaring from a half-century low in February of 3.5% to a 90-year peak in April of 14.7%.

The U.S. gained nearly 7 million jobs from Trump’s 2017 inauguration until the pandemic struck. Now it has 3.9 million fewer than when he took office.

Friday’s numbers offered voters a final look at the most important barometer of the economy before the Nov. 3 presidential election — an election whose outcome was thrown into deeper uncertainty by the announcement Friday that Trump has tested positive for the coronavirus.

Still-high unemployment is a potential political liability for Trump. Yet President Barack Obama was reelected in 2012 even with unemployment at 7.8% on the eve of the election.

And even as the economy has struggled to sustain a recovery, it has remained one of the few bright spots in Trump’s otherwise weak political standing. Roughly half of voters approve of his performance on the economy.

Voters in some battleground states may feel differently. In August, the latest data available, unemployment was 10.3% in Pennsylvania and 8.7% in Michigan, both above the national rate that month. Florida was at 7.4% and Wisconsin at 6.2%, with both states below the national average.

The September jobs report showed that women in their prime working years are quitting their jobs and leaving the workforce at much higher rates than men, a sign that many women are staying home to help their children with remote schooling.

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