December Jobs Report: U.S. Added 199,000 Jobs

“We’re all sort of at the whims of these variants and surges in cases, and it’s hard to know when they might strike,” said Nick Bunker, director of economic research at the Indeed Hiring Lab. “Any sort of projections or outlook on the pace of gains over the next year or so is still dependent on the virus.”

Employment levels are still depressed compared with the period before the pandemic, even as job openings remain remarkably high by historical standards. The economy has added 18.8 million jobs since April 2020 — when pandemic-related lockdowns were at their peak — but still has 3.6 million fewer positions than in February 2020.

Part of the worker shortage may reflect retirement decisions prompted by the pandemic. Some people may be waiting to go back when health risks from the virus are less pronounced, or may be struggling to find child care during school and day care shutdowns.

Dana Ewer, 42, a nurse in Salt Lake City, said she and her husband were steeling themselves for the possibility that the day care center where they send their two sons, ages 5 and 2, would close because of a staffing shortage or virus spread.

Should that happen, or if anyone in the family got sick, she isn’t sure how they would manage work and child care during the day, she said.

“There is a possibility that I could work from home on a very temporary basis, but it would be hard to negotiate,” Ms. Ewer said, adding, “I’m more worried about what would happen with my husband.” He has just a handful of days off from work a year, and they do not know how his employer would handle a longer absence.

There was also a sharp divergence in employment along racial lines in December. White employment rose by 665,000, while Black employment fell by 86,000. The unemployment rate for Black workers rose to 7.1 percent, compared with 3.2 percent for white workers. Hispanic employment fell slightly as well.