There’s no doubt the local job market is moving in the right direction, but the pace of hiring in Massachusetts remains sluggish compared with many other states, a result of our cautious approach to reopening the economy.
The state’s jobless rate dipped to 6.8 percent in March from a revised 7 percent a month earlier, the US Labor Department reported Friday. While that’s a long way from the pandemic peak of 16.4 percent last April, unemployment here remains above the 6 percent national average.
Meanwhile, local employers added 12,800 jobs in March, the smallest gain since December, when payrolls contracted amid the fall-winter COVID-19 surge. Massachusetts employment remains more than 7 percent below March 2020 levels, while the United States is down 4.5 percent.
The state’s incremental improvement last month paled in comparison to the blockbuster national jobs report that was released two weeks ago. US payrolls rose the most in seven months, the clearest sign by far that employers have been cheered by accelerating vaccinations, fewer social-distancing restrictions, and the $1.9 trillion in relief spending recently OK’d by Congress.
Economists aren’t surprised by our subpar recovery because Massachusetts has been slower than most states to reopen its economy amid a COVID-19 infection rate that remains stubbornly elevated. (The debate over whether the Baker administration could have eased social-distancing restrictions sooner without worsening death rates will take a long time to resolve.)
But also holding the state back are the industries that have in the past insulated us during downturns — hospitality and leisure, education, and health care. This time they have borne the brunt of pandemic-related layoffs and closures.
Urban food workers, office and hotel cleaners, security guards — they are among the groups hardest hit as many of the professionals on whose jobs their livelihoods depend continue to work from home.
“This is not a recession in a traditional sense,” said Michael Goodman, an economist and acting provost and vice chancellor for academic affairs at UMass Dartmouth. “It’s a natural disaster.”
But there was an important bright spot in the state’s data: renewed growth in the labor force, as more people found work or were encouraged enough to resume looking for a job.
The Massachusetts labor force increased by 4,500 to 3.745 million after a decline in February. The labor participation rate — the number of residents 16 or older who worked or sought work in the past four weeks — was up 0.1 percentage points to 66.4 percent. Compared with March 2020, the first month when the pandemic took a toll on the job market, the labor force participation rate was 0.4 percentage points higher.
And economists expect hiring here to gain strength throughout the year, as long as progress in vaccinations and reducing infection rates continues. Consumers have saved a lot of money, and many are itching to break free of their coronavirus isolation to return to eating in restaurants, traveling, and other Before Times activities.
“I would expect to see Massachusetts do much better in the summer as tourism rebounds and especially in the fall when education should be coming back strong,” said Thomas Kochan, co-director of the MIT Sloan Institute for Work and Employment Research.
But Kochan cautioned that many of the more than a quarter of a million Massachusetts residents still without jobs face difficult times because of permanent shifts in the economy.
“I worry that many of the long-term unemployed will not see their jobs coming back, so there is a big workforce adjustment and training need out there,” he said.
His concern is one that none of us should dismiss. Not doing all we can to bring everyone along for the recovery would only divide this country even more than it already is.