The US 'real' unemployment rate fell slightly in April amid an otherwise dismal jobs report

  • April’s job report came as a surprise, with gains far lower than expected and unemployment up.
  • But “real” unemployment did tick down, showing at least one sign of economic improvement.
  • The jobs report contained a lot of other surprises, including increased temporary layoffs.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

The April payrolls data was largely a massive disappointment, but not entirely.

The US economy added only 266,000 jobs last month, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, far undershooting estimates calling for an increase of 1 million payrolls. The unemployment rate rose to 6.1% from 6%, and a handful of industries shed jobs despite the easing of economic restrictions.

While nearly all gauges pointed to a slowing recovery, an alternative measure of nationwide unemployment improved slightly from its March level. The “real” unemployment rate previously mentioned by Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen fell to 8.3% in April from 8.7%, by Insider’s calculations. The rate includes workers who have been misclassified as having a job while on furlough and Americans who’ve dropped out of the labor force since February 2020.

The decline suggests about 13.6 million Americans are still jobless despite the economy steadily recovering through the spring. The number of Americans misclassified as holding a job while actually furloughed dropped, dipping from 636,000 to 558,000. 

The U-6 rate, which includes those employed part-time for economic reasons, and those marginally attached to the labor, dropped again in April. It went from 10.9% in March to 9.9% in April; while that’s yet another dip, the rate is still nearly in the double digits. 

Surprising and confusing data on April jobs

All of those numbers evoke a jobs report that is, in a word, confusing. Industries such as leisure and hospitality — the seeming epicenters of concerns over a labor shortage — saw the strongest job growth, while temporary layoffs also grew in April, which seems to contradict narratives of booming businesses looking to hire. Around 10 million people continue to be unemployed.

An analysis from Morning Consult found that, as of April 1, more workers expected to lose income over the next four weeks. By the end of April, adults across the income spectrum were still experiencing income loss at an “elevated” level. And the number of high-earners — those making over $100,000 — experiencing pay loss the week before actually went up. 

It’s hard to say what, exactly, caused the jobs report to look the way that it did; possible reasons include unemployment benefits, temporary layoffs, and a dispiriting dip in female employment. All in all, the jobs report showed a potential turning point in recovery, marking a significant departure from the perhaps easy gains of March. 

One mismatch: Childcare, and safely reopened full-time schools, are not necessarily caught up to the adults who want to rejoin the workforce, or have exited it. 

“I think we’ve all been very hopeful that we’re turning the corner, and we’re moving forward, and that components of this pandemic — that the big principal issues of the pandemic are behind us — but I think that we need to rethink that,” Misty L. Heggeness, a principal economist and senior advisor at the US Census Bureau, told Insider. “That’s not true for a subset of our workforce. I think we’ve seen improvements until now because these have been the low hanging fruits.”

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