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Jon Healey is the Los Angeles Times’ deputy editorial page editor.
The U.S. economy has officially lost what little bounce was left in its step.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday that total non-farm employment decreased by 140,000 in December, the first decline since April’s COVID-19-induced free fall. The unemployment rate, which is calculated through a separate survey of households, stayed unchanged at 6.7 percent, and the percentage of people either sidelined or too discouraged to continue looking for work held firm at 7.9 percent. Meanwhile, a recent report showed U.S. economic output declined slightly in November, also for the first time since April.
After rebounding strongly in the summer and tapering off in the fall, the economy appears to be going cold as we wait for the long COVID-19 nightmare to end.
Those ugly numbers suggest the Biden administration will be launched into a headwind, not with a tailwind. That only increases the likelihood of another partisan battle soon over whether to inject more federal dollars into the economy, perhaps even before March, when the latest extension in unemployment benefits is due to run out.
The statistics are also a discouraging sign of how the public’s inability to follow health and safety guidelines is strangling the economy. Yes, the decline in employment was caused at least in part by state and local governments’ efforts to stop the spread of the disease. But those steps came in response to surges in COVID cases and hospitalizations, which stemmed largely from our own actions, not government lockdowns.
The BLS spotlighted some of the connective tissue between the coronavirus and the lousy jobs numbers: “In December, 15.8 million persons reported that they had been unable to work because their employer closed or lost business due to the pandemic — that is, they did not work at all or worked fewer hours at some point in the last four weeks due to the pandemic. This measure is 1.0 million higher than in November.” But there was a wee bit of mollifying news too, according to the bureau: “Among those who reported in December that they were unable to work because of pandemic-related closures or lost business, 12.8 percent received at least some pay from their employer for the hours not worked, little changed from November.”
You might think that the record number of deaths last week — more than 4,000 Americans died from COVID-19 on Thursday, a new high — would be enough to spur people to start complying rigorously with the stay-at-home orders and the admonitions to avoid gatherings, wear a mask and maintain social distance. And maybe it will. But we’d still have a problem with the disease spreading at workplaces deemed essential, whether it be grocers, malls or movie sets.
So, as bad as the news has been out of Washington, we can’t ignore the bright, flashing warning signs telling us that the economy is headed for worse times ahead. Stay safe and wear a mask, for everyone’s sake.