Job openings hit another record high in July before the delta variant upended the U.S. labor market, according to data released Wednesday by the Labor Department.
On the last business day of July, there were 10.9 million open jobs in the U.S., an increase of 800,000 from the previous record of 10.1 million openings in June. Hires stayed even at 6.7 million in July and separations — which includes layoffs, firings and voluntary departures — also stayed flat at 5.8 million.
The new openings data is a window into the strength of the U.S. economy just weeks before surging COVID-19 cases driven by the delta variant walloped job growth. The U.S. added more than 1 million jobs in July, according to the August jobs report, but just 235,000 jobs last month.
"Demand for workers was still growing before the delta variant impacted the U.S. economy,” wrote Nick Bunker, economic research director at Indeed, in a Wednesday analysis.
“The big uncertainty is how much of a blow did the latest surge in the pandemic deal to demand,” he continued.
There were roughly 83 unemployed workers per 100 job openings in July — the highest level since December 2019, according to Bunker — as a summer rush of travel, dining and entertainment spending drastically drove up demand for workers. But the rise of the delta variant later in the second half of July laid the groundwork for a sharp hiring slowdown the following month.
While fully vaccinated individuals are still unlikely to suffer serious illness if they contract COVID-19, the delta surge poses several major obstacles for the labor market recovery.
Coronavirus-related school closures could prevent millions from returning to work as health concerns force consumers to pull back their spending. The expiration of federal pandemic unemployment programs this week may also do little to spur more job gains if health fears and school closures keep more potential workers on the sidelines.
“The delta variant has disrupted many plans and predictions, including the idea that the reopening of the service sector will continue to power the recovery. This may be a temporary slowdown, but we should remain vigilant about the risks to a quick and robust recovery,” Bunker wrote.