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Labor Secretary: Job gains in restaurants and bars 'not where we want it to be'

·2 min read

There are still over 1.3 million people out of work in America’s leisure and hospitality businesses compared to pre-pandemic levels, and the Biden administration says that’s a problem.

Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told Yahoo Finance on Friday that he was “surprised” by the jobs report released Friday morning showing only 23,000 payroll gains in the sector (on a seasonally adjusted basis) during the month of November.

“That number is not where we want it to be,” Walsh said.

Employment in leisure and hospitality cratered during the depths of the pandemic, as bars, restaurants, museums, and casinos closed. Total payrolls in the sector nearly halved in the early months of 2020, losing about 8.2 million jobs. Since the reopening, about 6.9 million of those jobs have been recovered.

As a service-focused sector heavily reliant on in-person contact, worries over contracting the virus appear to remain a factor in holding back job matching. With the emergence of the Omicron variant, it is unclear how easy it will be for the sector to close the remaining payrolls shortfall.

“I think obviously that has a direct connection to the pandemic and people worried about it,” Walsh said.

The Independent Restaurant Coalition said Friday that the variant already appears to be weighing on restaurant reservations, pointing to fewer bookings in cities like New York, Chicago, and Denver (compared to 2019 levels).

“Tens of thousands of restaurants are in danger of closing, permanently leaving hundreds of thousands of jobs unfilled this winter,” said Erika Polmar, executive director of the Independent Restaurant Coalition.

Across all industries, the U.S. economy added 210,000 jobs on a seasonally adjusted basis in November. Despite the unemployment rate falling to 4.2%, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday morning that the number of people prevented from looking for work due to the pandemic remained unchanged month-over-month — at 1.2 million.

Speaking after the BLS report, President Joe Biden celebrated the job gains for November, saying the figures show “significant improvement” in the economic recovery.

“I also know that despite this progress, families are anxious. They’re anxious about COVID, they’re anxious about the cost of living, the economy more broadly. They’re still uncertain. I want you to know I hear you,” Biden said.

Brian Cheung is a reporter covering the Fed, economics, and banking for Yahoo Finance. You can follow him on Twitter @bcheungz.

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