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U.S. Slowly Whittles Away At Mountain Of Pandemic Job Losses, Jobs Report Shows

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

There are almost 10 million fewer people working in the U.S. today than there were before the pandemic hit. And the economy barely whittled down that job loss last month. The Labor Department says employers added just 49,000 jobs in January during what was one of the deadliest months of the pandemic so far. That's better than December, when the economy weathered a net loss of jobs. But President Biden says the pace of recovery is still far too slow.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: While we're grateful for everyone who found work and is earning a paycheck, it's very clear our economy is still in trouble.

CORNISH: Today's lackluster jobs report will shape the debate in Washington over how much additional federal help is needed to fix the economy. NPR's Scott Horsley joins us now. And, Scott, these numbers sound very grim. How bad was this report today?

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Audie, it was pretty bad. We saw another 19,000 jobs lost in bars and restaurants. That's on top of the 400,000 jobs lost in those industries in December. In-person services have really been hammered by this winter wave of coronavirus infections. And even industries that have been pretty resilient up until now, like construction and manufacturing, also saw some job declines in January. Even the tepid job gains we saw on the whole last month may have been artificially inflated by some seasonal adjustments, so the real picture may be even weaker than these numbers would indicate.

Congressional forecasters said earlier this week it could be 2024 before we see a full jobs recovery. At the snail's pace of job growth we saw last month, it would take a lot longer than that.

CORNISH: We heard earlier President Biden acknowledging that road ahead. How else is the White House responding?

HORSLEY: Well, the president and his aides say this just underscores the urgency of passing the big aid package that Biden's been pushing. There is some skepticism from congressional Republicans and even some Democrats who think that another $1.9 trillion is overkill, especially on top of that $900 billion that was approved in December and the $3 trillion or so that was approved last spring. But the president said again today he is determined to go big.

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BIDEN: A lot of folks are losing hope. And I believe the American people are looking right now to their government for help to do our job, to not let them down. So I'm going to act, and I'm going to act fast.

HORSLEY: Biden has said he would prefer to act in a bipartisan manner, but he's prepared to push the package through Congress on a party-line vote if necessary. And both the House and Senate have been laying the groundwork for that this week with budget resolutions that would allow Senate Democrats to sidestep a GOP filibuster and pass Biden's bill with a bare 51-vote majority in the Senate.

CORNISH: Are there any areas of compromise?

HORSLEY: Well, yes. The president has said he's open to some modifications. One example is direct payments. Biden wants to send $1,400 payments to most Americans - that's on top of the $600 payments that were approved by Congress in late December - for a total of $2,000, which is something Democrats campaigned on. There is a group of moderate Republicans in the Senate who would like to scale that back. They propose $1,000 payments to a smaller group of people. Biden has said he won't budge on the $1,400 figure, but he is willing to adjust who qualifies for the money. So it would be more targeted to low- and middle-income families and not so many people earning six figures and up.

CORNISH: Speaking of which, what about the minimum wage? A $15 minimum had been a big part of Biden's platform. There seems to be some resistance among some members of Congress.

HORSLEY: That's right. We have seen some opposition in the Senate in particular to raising the minimum wage, especially at a time when so many businesses are hanging by a thread during the pandemic. Biden and his team say they are still backing the $15 minimum. Although this is, you know, something they've been pushing for years, the White House is marketing it as pandemic related. They are highlighting the low-wage grocery workers or home health aides who, you know, have kept punching the clock during the last 10 months or so at some personal risk. And they say those workers deserve more pay.

It's still an open question, though, of this is - whether this is something the Senate could do on a 50-vote margin. It increasingly looks as though Congress may take up the minimum wage as a separate standalone measure.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Scott Horsley. Thanks for your reporting.

HORSLEY: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.