NOEL KING, HOST:
This pandemic is absolutely hammering the American job market. A report out from the Labor Department this morning shows U.S. employers cut 140,000 jobs last month. Now, that's the first time we've seen a net loss of jobs since the early days of the pandemic last spring. The unemployment rate, though, is steady - 6.7%.
NPR's chief economics correspondent Scott Horsley's with us. Good morning, Scott.
SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, Noel.
KING: Well, so forecasters predicted it would be bad. It's even worse than they expected. What's going on?
HORSLEY: Yeah. This is the price tag of a runaway pandemic. You know, yesterday was the deadliest day we've had so far. Infections are still spreading rapidly. That's led to government crackdowns on business activity. And it's also just made consumers nervous about going out and spending money.
The job losses we saw in December were overwhelmingly concentrated in businesses that depend on face-to-face contact, like bars and restaurants. They lost 372,000 jobs. There were also job losses in entertainment and recreation. These are often low-wage jobs to begin with. So as we've seen throughout the pandemic, the people suffering most are the ones who can least afford it.
KING: OK. Were there any positive signs in the report?
HORSLEY: There were. Some industries that are more insulated from the pandemic are doing OK. Construction, for example, where workers can more easily socially distance - that added jobs. You know, homebuilders have been on a tear. Factories also added jobs.
People who can't travel or go out to dinner and a movie have been spending more money on stuff. And that's keeping factories humming. In fact, some manufacturers say they're having trouble finding enough workers to keep up with booming demand for stuff.
We also saw job gains in transportation and warehousing, which reflects the continued growth of online shopping - and in white collar services. You know, if you're able to work from home, you might be relatively unscarred by this pandemic. And we did see a slight uptick last month in the share of workers who are doing just that.
KING: December was a terrible month. But it did come with a coronavirus vaccine - two of them, in fact. How much of a difference is that going to make in the next couple of months?
HORSLEY: It'll make a difference, but not right away. You know, even...
HORSLEY: ...In the best-case scenario, it was going to take some time to reach a critical mass of vaccinations. And so far, the rollout has been far from best case.
Still, I talked with economist Sarah House, who's with Wells Fargo Securities. She says, at some point this year, we could be looking at a pretty significant rebound in the job market.
SARAH HOUSE: This off patch should be rather temporary. By the time you get to the second half of the year, we're looking for employment to really strengthen as you see businesses return to some semblance of normal and you have consumers really eager to get out there and spend.
HORSLEY: So certainly, the summer, maybe the spring should be better. But in the winter at least, this is likely to get worse before we see an improvement.
KING: Just briefly, the big pandemic relief package that Congress passed - is that helpful?
HORSLEY: It helps. Yeah. Most importantly, it provides a lifeline for millions of people who are out of work. It extends emergency jobless programs and boosts unemployment benefits by $300 a week. There are also loans for small businesses and those $600 direct payments to people.
You know, President-elect Joe Biden wants to see additional help once he takes office, and Wall Street's betting he's going to get it.
KING: OK. NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks, Scott.
HORSLEY: You're welcome.
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