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WASHINGTON: US employers increased hiring in May and raised wages as they competed for workers, with millions of unemployed Americans still at home because of childcare issues, generous unemployment checks and lingering fears over Covid-19.

Though the pickup in job growth shown in the Labour Department’s closely watched employment report on Friday missed economists’ forecasts, it offered some assurance that the recovery from the pandemic recession remained on track.

Growth is being supported by vaccinations against Covid-19, massive fiscal stimulus and the Federal Reserve’s ultra-easy monetary policy stance. April’s nonfarm payrolls count, which delivered about a quarter of the new jobs economists had forecast, caused handwringing among some analysts and investors that growth was stagnating at a time when inflation was rising.

Nonfarm payrolls increased by 559,000 jobs last month. Data for April was revised higher to show payrolls rising by 278,000 jobs instead of 266,000 as previously reported.

That left employment about 7.6 million jobs below its peak in February 2020. Economists polled by Reuters had forecast 650,000 jobs created in May. About 9.3 million people were classified as officially unemployed last month. There are a record 8.1 million unfilled jobs.

Government-funded benefits, including a $300 weekly unemployment subsidy, are also constraining hiring. Republican governors in 25 states are terminating this benefit and other unemployment programs funded by the federal government starting next Saturday.

These states account for more than 40% of the workforce. The expanded benefits end in early September across the country. That, together with more people vaccinated and schools fully reopening in the fall, is expected to ease the worker crunch.

Average hourly earnings rose a solid 0.5% after shooting up 0.7% in April. That raised the year-on-year increase in wages to 2.0% from 0.4% in April. Wages in the leisure and hospitality sector jumped 1.3%, the third straight month of gains above 1%.

Postings on Poachedjobs.com, a national job board for the restaurant/hospitality industry, are showing restaurants offering as much as $30-$35 per hour for lead line cooks.

The average workweek held steady at 34.9 hours. That together with strong wage gains lifted an income proxy 0.9%, matching April’s gain. This bodes well for consumer spending, which could also get a powerful tailwind from the more than $2.3 trillion in excess savings amassed during the pandemic.

Last month’s increase in hiring was led by the leisure and hospitality industry, which added 292,000 jobs, with restaurants and bars accounting for 186,000 of those positions. Local government education employment rose by 53,000 jobs as the resumption of in-person learning and other school-related activities in some parts of the country continued.

Manufacturing payrolls increased by 23,000 jobs. But construction employment decreased by 20,000 jobs.

The unemployment rate fell to 5.8% from 6.1% in April. The drop was in part due to more jobs created and 53,000 people dropping out of the labour force. The jobless rate has been understated by people misclassifying themselves as being “employed but absent from work.” Without this problem, the unemployment rate would have been 6.1%.

The labour force participation rate, or the proportion of working-age Americans who have a job or are looking for one, fell to 61.6% from 61.7% in April.

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