U.S. job openings rebound; labor market strong before coronavirus outbreak

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. job openings rebounded in January after two straight monthly declines, but signs of strength in the labor market at the start of the year have been overshadowed by the coronavirus pandemic, which has severely disrupted economic activity.

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, increased 411,000 to 7.0 million, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS on Tuesday. Vacancies peaked at 7.5 million in January 2019. Job openings, however, continued to outpace the number of unemployed Americans, which was 5.8 million in February.

But that’s all in the rear view mirror given the coronavirus outbreak, which economists expect to lead to layoffs in the hardest hit transportation, leisure and hospitality industries, as well as the manufacturing sector.

The Federal Reserve on Sunday aggressively slashed interest rates to near zero and pledged hundreds of billions of dollars in asset purchases and backstopping foreign authorities with the offer of cheap dollar financing.

Economists expect the economy will slide into recession in the second quarter.

The rebound in job openings in January was concentrated in the private sector, which saw an increase of 370,000 vacancies. There were gains in finance and insurance, and mining and logging industries. Government vacancies increased 40,000 in January.

The job openings rate rose to 4.4% from 4.1% in December.

Hiring fell to 5.8 million in January from 5.9 million in December. The hiring rate dropped to 3.8% in January from 3.9% in the prior month.

The number of workers voluntarily quitting their jobs was little changed at 3.5 million. The quits rate was unchanged at 2.3% for the fifth straight month.

The quits rate is viewed by policymakers and economists as a measure of job market confidence.

Layoffs fell to 1.7 million in January from 1.9 million in December. The layoffs rate dipped to 1.1% from holding at 1.2% for three straight months.

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