Job Openings Remained Elevated in December Despite Omicron Surge

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The Omicron variant of the coronavirus has disrupted business and kept millions of people home from work. But in December, at least, it did little to cool off the red-hot job market.

Employers posted 10.9 million open jobs in the last month of 2021, the Labor Department said Tuesday. That was up modestly from November, and close to the record 11.1 million openings in July. There were roughly 1.7 job openings for every unemployed worker in December, the most in the two decades the government has been keeping track.

Forecasters had expected the jump in coronavirus cases to lead to a pullback in recruiting, and a slowdown is still possible. Nationally, coronavirus cases did not reach their peak until mid-January, and they are still rising in some parts of the country. Job postings on the career site Indeed, which tend to track the government’s data relatively closely, remained high through much of December but fell in January.

The virus kept millions of workers home in December and January, leaving many businesses short staffed and forcing some to close or limit their hours. That probably forced some companies to postpone hiring. Employers might have also found it harder to hire because some people were unwilling to look for or start new jobs as virus cases rose, or unable to do so because of child care obligations.

But there is little evidence so far that Omicron has derailed a strong job market. Employers laid off or fired just 1.2 million workers in December, the fewest on record. The difficult hiring environment may have led some companies that normally shed temporary workers after the holidays to hold on to them this year, said Diane Swonk, chief economist for the accounting firm Grant Thornton.

“Companies kept their seasonal hires,” she said. “One, because it’s already a labor shortage. And two, because they had so many people out sick that they wanted to keep people on.”

Many workers are taking advantage of their leverage by seeking out better jobs. More than 4.3 million workers quit their jobs voluntarily, down a bit from November but still near a record.

With workers scarce and employees in the driver’s seat, companies are raising pay. Wages and salaries rose 4.5 percent in the final three months of 2021, according to separate data released by the Labor Department last week. Wages are rising fastest in sectors where labor is particularly scarce, such as leisure and hospitality.

Economists will get a more up-to-date snapshot of the labor market on Friday, when the Labor Department releases data on job growth and unemployment in January. Forecasters surveyed by FactSet expect the report to show that employers added 165,000 jobs. But Omicron has created an unusual amount of uncertainty, and some economists believe the report could show a net loss of jobs last month.