‘No question’ delta variant is why August job growth wasn’t stronger, Biden says

President Joe Biden blamed the delta variant-driven surge of the novel coronavirus for a weak August jobs report, which showed just 235,000 jobs added to the economy. The number fell far short of the roughly 940,000 that employers had added in each of the previous two months when widespread vaccinations allowed the economy to fully reopen from pandemic restrictions. 

Still, the number of job openings remains at record levels and hiring is expected to stay solid in the coming months, Biden said Friday. 

"Despite the impact of the delta variant... what we’re seeing is an economic recovery that’s durable and strong," he said. "While I know some wanted to see a larger number today — and so did I — what we’re seeing this year is a continued growth month after month in job creation."

Hiring in a category that includes restaurants, bars and hotels sank to zero in August after those sectors had added roughly 400,000 jobs in both June and July. Restaurant dining, after having fully recovered in late June, has declined to about 9% below pre-pandemic levels, according to reservations website OpenTable.

Some live shows, including the remaining concerts on country star Garth Brooks’ tour, for example, have been canceled. Businesses are delaying their returns to offices, threatening the survival of some downtown restaurants, coffee shops and dry cleaners.

Health care and government employers also cut jobs in August. Construction companies, which have struggled to find workers, lost 3,000 jobs despite strong demand for new homes.

Government employers shed 8,000 jobs, mostly because of sharp declines in local education hiring after strong gains in June and July. That decline occurred mostly because the pandemic has scrambled normal hiring patterns as schools have closed and then reopened for in-person classes.

While adding jobs slowed, the August jobs report did show unemployment claims reached a pandemic low. The number of Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week by 14,000 to 340,000 claims, the Labor Department reported Thursday.

The pace of weekly applications for unemployment aid is still high by historic standards. Before COVID-19 hit the United States hard in March 2020, the number averaged around 220,000 a week.

The unemployment rate dropped to 5.2% from 5.4% in July, the lowest level in the past 18 months Biden said. 

"Because of the groundwork we laid with the American Rescue Plan and our vaccination strategy, we’re seeing an economy and a job market that can weather the ups and downs of the delta variant and anything else that comes our way," he said.

Vaccinations for COVID-19 have been supporting the job market by encouraging businesses to reopen or expand hours and consumers to return to restaurants, bars and shops. In response, employers across the country have been boosting hiring to meet a surge in consumer demand.

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Still, a resurgence of cases tied to the highly contagious delta variant has clouded the economic outlook. COVID-19 cases are now surpassing 135,000 a day, up from fewer than 12,000 in early July.

Biden said next week he planned to lay out the next steps his administration will take to combat rising cases and hospitalizations.

"I want to talk about how we’ll further protect our schools, our business, our economy and our families from the threat of delta," he said. 

The White House did not yet give a date for when Biden would deliver those remarks. 

This story was reported from Detroit. The Associated Press contributed.