US unemployment rate falls unexpectedly as lockdown relaxed

5 June 2020, 15:40

A man walks on a sidewalk lined with shuttered shops in Los Angeles
A man walks on a sidewalk lined with shuttered shops in Los Angeles. Picture: PA

By Megan White

The US unemployment rate fell unexpectedly in May to 13.3 per cent as states loosened their coronavirus lockdowns, down from 14.7 per cent in April.

The government said the economy added 2.5 million jobs last month, driving unemployment down, but leaving the rate still on a par with what the nation witnessed during the Great Depression.

President Donald Trump savoured the news with a series of tweets.

He tweeted: "Really Big Jobs Report. Great going President Trump (kidding but true)!"

The May job gain, which confounded economists' expectations of another round of severe losses, suggests that thousands of stores, restaurants, gyms and other companies reopened and rehired more quickly than many analysts had forecast.

But for hiring to continue at a solid pace, businesses will probably need to see signs that consumers are starting to resume their pre-outbreak habits of shopping and dining out.

Other evidence has also shown that the job-market meltdown triggered by the coronavirus has bottomed out.

The number of people applying for unemployment benefits has declined for nine straight weeks.

And the total number of Americans receiving such aid has essentially levelled off.

The overall job cuts have widened economic disparities: While the unemployment rate for white Americans was 12.4 per cent in May, it was 17.6 per cent for Hispanics and 16.8 per cent for African-Americans.

Even with the surprising gain in May, it may take months for all those who lost work in April and March to find jobs.

Some economists forecast the rate could remain in double-digits through the November elections and into next year.

For weeks, economists had warned that unemployment in May could hit 20% or more.

The street protests over George Floyd's killing that led to vandalism and looting in dozens of cities did not affect Friday's figures, which were compiled in the middle of May.

But business closings related to the unrest could show up in the June report.

A few businesses are reporting signs of progress even in hard-hit industries.

American Airlines, for example, said this week that it will fly 55 per cent of its US routes in July, up from just 20 per cent in May.

And the Cheesecake Factory said one-quarter of its nearly 300 restaurants have reopened, though with limited capacity.

Sales are at nearly 75 per cent of the levels reached a year ago, the company said.