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Restaurant employment inched upward in December

But the numbers crunched by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics don't fully reflect the impact of omicron.
Photograph: Shutterstock

Restaurants and bars finished 2021 with a moderate upswing in employment, adding 42,600 jobs in December and narrowing the decline from pre-pandemic levels to roughly 653,000 positions, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported Friday.

The fresh data shows that the industry swelled its workforce by almost 1.8 million hires from December 2020, when a post-holiday surge of COVID-19 brought partial and complete shutdowns of restaurant dining rooms for a second time. Eating and drinking places employed a total of 9.9 million workers at the end of 2020, compared with employment of 11.7 million in the more recent December.

However, the data was gathered before the full impact of the omicron coronavirus had hit the United States, suggesting that widespread restaurant closings had yet to hammer down total industry employment. The variant wasn’t even discovered until about six weeks ago.

The effect of omicron on industry employment will not likely be fully gauged for at least several weeks. Historical BLS data show the discontinuation of restaurant jobs continued for at least two months after 2020’s holiday surge in coronavirus infections, lowering the industry’s workforce to 9.7 million people in January 2021. That figure was not much above the level of June 2020, when health and government officials were struggling to get coronavirus under control without the benefit of vaccines and sufficient hospital resources.

Similarly, figures for all of 2021 show industry employment slipped for two months after the delta variant sent infection tallies climbing again this summer. Industry jobs fell by a total of 216,000 last August and September, but still never fell back to the pandemic-depressed levels of a year ago.

Restaurants’ rollercoaster year in employment

(Total foodservice and bar employment, in 000s)

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

Newly filled restaurant and bar jobs accounted for more than 1 of every 5 private-sector positions that were created outside of the agricultural sector in December, according to the BLS figures. During the prior month, 33,000 restaurant and bar jobs were added to payrolls. The Department of Labor pegged the total increase in the nation’s nonfarm payrolls at 199,000, a number that’s roughly half what most economists had forecast.

Nonetheless, the national unemployment rate fell to 3.9%, a few tenths of a point above where it was before the pandemic took hold.

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