In November, hiring slowed down sharply despite declining COVID-19 numbers, ending unemployment benefits and easing child care constraints. This was despite the fact that more Americans were returning to work.

The economy added 210,000 jobs, and the unemployment rate, which is calculated from a different survey, fell from 4.6% to 4.2%, the Labor Department said Friday.

Economists had estimated that 545,000 jobs were added last month, according to a Bloomberg survey.

This disappointing job growth doesn’t reflect the discovery last week of COVID’s omicron variation in South Africa. It happened too late to have any impact on the employment survey.

The U.S. has recovered 18.4 million, or 82%, of the 22.4 million jobs lost during the depths of the pandemic in the spring of 2020. That leaves the nation about 4 million jobs below its pre-crisis level.

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Although it has seen strong payroll gains over many months and added 23,000 to its total last month, hospitality and leisure were hardest hit by the pandemic.

After seasonal adjustments, retail lost 20,000 job opportunities to reflect holiday hiring’s large-scale gains in November.

Others sectors also saw positive growth. Other sectors saw positive growth: Professional and business services gained 90,000. Transportation and warehousing added 50,000 jobs. Construction and manufacturing added 31,000.

There were other positive signs in the report. There were other positive signs in the report. Payroll gains for October and September were up revised by an additional 82,000. They averaged 462,000 over the two-month period.

And the labor force — made up of  Americans working or looking for jobs — grew by nearly 600,000, highlighting that many people on the sidelines are streaming back into an improving job market that’s offering higher wages. The share of people over 16 participating in the labor force  rose from 61.6% to 61.8%.

This could ease the severe shortage of workers.

Employer demand for workers has been strong for months but the labor shortages have held job gains to solid but less-than-blockbuster levels. In September, COVID’s delta variant kept many Americans cautious and many schools from fully reopening, forcing parents to care for distance learning kids and put off their return to the workplace or job hunts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that 81% Americans older than 12 have been fully vaccinated and many children between 5 and 11 years of age have had their first shots. Daily COVID incidences have dropped from 95,000 to 82,000 over the past 10 days to 150,000 in September. Schools have mostly reopened.

And three months have now passed since the federal government’s enhanced unemployment benefits expired for about 11 million people. As a result, while the share of Americans working or looking for jobs didn’t tick up as expected in September and October, some economists still expected that boost to materialize.

A couple of wild cards could darken the job market in coming months, including COVID’s omicron variant first discovered in South Africa last week.

And President Biden’s mandate of employee vaccinations or testing for companies with more than 100 employees will take effect January 4, possibly leading some workers to quit, says economist Andrew Hunter of Capital Economics.

Capital Economics’ Lydia Boussour, an economist says that she anticipates the U.S. to return to their pre-COVID levels by the second half next year.

But, she adds, “The path forward could prove bumpier than anticipated.”

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