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Restaurant Industry Helped Push Largest U.S. Jobs Growth in Months

The food service industry gained 176,000 jobs in March, but there are still over 2 million fewer people working in bars and restaurants than before the pandemic

Customers dine at outdoor tables at Have & Meyer
Customers dine at outdoor tables at Have & Meyer
Gary He/Eater

As the pace of vaccinations picked up around the country and as states further loosened restrictions on activities like indoor dining — even in the face of high COVID-19 rates — the battered hospitality industry continued its recovery, helping to push the U.S. economy to one of its biggest months for jobs growth since last summer.

Bars and restaurants gained 176,000 jobs in March. That’s down from February’s increase of roughly 309,000 jobs, but it’s the largest jump of any industry in the employment report, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported this morning. Overall, U.S. businesses added 916,000 jobs overall throughout the economy.

Unemployment for bars and restaurants fell from 12.2 percent to 11.8 percent last month, which is still nearly double the national jobless rate, now at 6 percent. The federal unemployment rate reached its peak a year ago when it hit 14.8 percent.

The nationwide restaurant industry remains about 2.4 million jobs short of its pre-pandemic highs.

In other strong news for hospitality, New York City eating and drinking places gained nearly 9,000 jobs in February, the biggest gain since October, though the industry employs just over 52 percent of the people it did pre-pandemic.

Full-service restaurants — the category most liked helped by Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s decision to reopen indoor dining to quarter-capacity in February — increased by roughly 8,000 employees, or by 13.7 percent. When the state labor department releases local March unemployment data in the coming weeks, those numbers could show some of the effects of Cuomo’s decision to raise the city’s indoor dining capacity to half-capacity last month.

The national jobs report continues to be a mixed bag of news. Those who have remained unemployed longer than half a year — many of them surely ex-waiters and bartenders — increased by 70,000 to 4.2 million, up over 3 million since the beginning of the pandemic. And the number of folks unemployed part-time for economic reasons — meaning they want full-time work but might’ve had their hours cut — is still up by 1.4 million since last February, even though their ranks decreased in March.

The jobless rate among white people dropped to 5.4 percent, the lowest of any group. But among Asian people, who gained nearly 7,000 jobs, unemployment increased by nearly a full point, to 6 percent — following a decline the previous month. Unemployment among Black individuals also remained high, dropping three tenths of a percent, to 9.6 percent, while joblessness among Latinx people fell to 7.9 percent.

Amid the high plateau of novel coronavirus cases, Mayor Bill de Blasio has asked New York to hold back on expanding indoor dining capacity, a reality that could stall further restaurant jobs growth in the coming months.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still considers indoor dining a higher risk activity, and President Joe Biden has also asked states to pause reopening efforts. Rochelle Walensky, director of the CDC, asked Americans this week to “hold on a little while longer,” and said she feels a sense of “impending doom” as COVID-19 numbers trend in the wrong direction.