AILSA CHANG, HOST:
We got a really positive report card today on the nation's job market. U.S. employers added 431,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to just 3.6%. With sizzling demand for workers and at least a temporary lull in the pandemic, more people are now coming off the sidelines to look for jobs. And in a lot of cases, they're finding them. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now with more. Hey, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Great to be with you.
CHANG: Great to be with you. So I understand that this is now the 11th month in a row that the U.S. has added more than 400,000 jobs. Can we officially say that the economy has fully recovered from the damage done by the pandemic? I mean, what do you think?
HORSLEY: Not quite. We're still about 1.6 million jobs short of where we were before the pandemic. But that gap is closing pretty rapidly. There had been some concern that the spike in gasoline prices last month following Russia's invasion of Ukraine might have weighed on job growth. But restaurants, retailers, factories, construction crews all added jobs at a healthy pace in March. What's more, employment gains for January and February were revised up by a total of 95,000 jobs. At the White House, President Biden expressed hope that all these additional workers will help the economy to deliver both the goods and services that the American people have been clamoring for.
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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: If more and more Americans get jobs as they do, it's going to help ease the supply pressures we've seen. And that's good news for fighting inflation. It's good news for our economy, and it means that our economy has gone from being on the mend to being on the move.
HORSLEY: At 3.6%, the unemployment rate has almost returned to where it was before the coronavirus struck. And that decline in unemployment was really broad-based last month. Men, women, Blacks, whites, Latinos, Asian Americans, African American unemployment actually saw the biggest drop in March, although at 6.2%, it is still above the national average.
CHANG: Right. But I mean, Scott, even with all of these new jobs added last month, employers - they still want, they still need more workers right now, right?
HORSLEY: That's right. Right now job openings far outnumber unemployed workers, which is unusual. But there was some good news on that score. More than 400,000 people joined or rejoined the workforce last month. That's on top of another big gain in February. So while we still have fewer workers than we did before the pandemic, the worker shortage is beginning to ease a bit. Julia Pollak is chief economist with the job search website ZipRecruiter. She thinks a lot of would-be workers who sat out 2021 are going to be back in the workforce this year.
JULIA POLLAK: The great return, I think, is the new labor market story. Of course, the year got off to a rocky start with omicron, but now seems to be the time that people are starting to stream back.
HORSLEY: COVID cases are way down since the beginning of the year, so people might feel more comfortable getting back to work. And with COVID relief payments from the government now long since expired, some people might be feeling some economic pressure to start drawing a paycheck.
CHANG: Yeah. Well, when workers do come back into the job market, do they find that they have more leverage?
HORSLEY: Yeah, it's a workers' market right now. Employers are eager to hire, and in many cases, they're willing to pay more, offer better schedules, more flexibility. Tonya Breslow (ph) helps to recruit workers for restaurants around the country. That's an industry that added 61,000 jobs last month. And Breslow says the tables have turned.
TONYA BRESLOW: It's the candidates now interviewing the prospective employers. It's not the prospective employers interviewing the candidates. The candidates have leverage, whereas before they did not have leverage.
HORSLEY: Wages are up 5.6% in the last year. In the hospitality industry, they're up nearly 12%. Now, inflation watchdogs are keeping a close eye on that. They're nervous that the wage increases might feed into higher inflation. But President Biden says he's not worried about the increased bargaining power for workers. He says it's long overdue.
CHANG: That is NPR's Scott Horsley. Thank you, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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