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A worker helps build an outdoor eating area along 32nd Street in Korea Town, May 18, 2021.
A worker helps build an outdoor eating area along West 32nd Street in Koreatown, May 18, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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Jobs Making a Careful Comeback as NYC Reopens

The city gained 35,000 positions last month with restaurants and the arts showing signs of resurgence. Hopes raised by the easing of most restrictions this week are tempered by an 11% unemployment rate.

The gradual reopening of the city aided job growth in New York last month — potentially setting the stage for an acceleration of the economy with the dropping of most restrictions on businesses this week.

New York gained 35,000 jobs in April, not far below the 40,000 positions added in March, the state Labor Department reported Thursday. Restaurants added staff for the third consecutive month and even the moribund arts sector showed signs of springing to life more than a year after COVID-19 all but paralyzed the city.

By contrast, the national economy gained only a quarter of the increase that was expected.

“As opposed to the lackluster national job growth in April, New York City had a third consecutive month of a relatively strong rebound,” said James Parrott, an economist at the New School.

The numbers will be welcomed by Mayor Bill de Blasio, who last month projected the city would regain half a million jobs this year, which could end his second and final term on a note of triumph.

“With over 4 million New Yorkers vaccinated, waves of businesses reopening, the return of tourism, and a strong financial plan, New York City is coming back strong,” said Laura Feyer, a de Blasio spokesperson.

A worker takes an order at a Park Slope restaurant, May 20, 2021.
A waiter takes an order at a Park Slope restaurant, May 20, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Not everyone shares his optimism: The city’s unemployment rate remains at a painfully high 11.4%, only 0.3 percentage points less than March.

And the Independent Budget Office earlier this week issued an updated forecast that pegged the employment increase at half the mayor’s projection. While de Blasio foresees domestic tourism showing strength in the second half of the year and workers flooding back to their offices, the IBO is focused on the possibility of long-term structural changes to the city’s economy.

The stakes over whether the mayor or the IBO is right couldn’t be higher for the city’s nearly 500,000 unemployed residents looking for work and another 300,000 or so who have dropped out of the labor force. The next few months will determine whether de Blasio’s sunny predictions are justified — and what economic state his successor will inherit.

Amazon Offers a Lift

Wasan Bonilla left his job last year during a personal health crisis and the prospect of finding another one didn’t seem bright a month ago. But having attended some training programs at the nonprofit BronxWorks after graduating from high school, the 23-year-old in early April attended a Zoom session the nonprofit set up with recruiters from Amazon.

Two weeks later, he became one of the 35,000 New Yorkers hired in April. He works as a picker at one of the company’s facilities in The Bronx, bringing packages to drivers for delivery. He makes $15.25 an hour, expects a raise soon and gets benefits that include more than health insurance.

While unions trying to organize Amazon workers say the workplaces are unsafe and pay is too low, Bonilla expressed satisfaction with his job.

“I love working at Amazon because it gives you great benefits,” he said. “They provide me with a free lift in the morning to get me to my early morning 5:15 to 10:45 shift.”

The company also offered him a $12 daily voucher for his trip home and provided work shoes.

Amazon is hiring 75,000 people in the U.S. and Canada this year after increasing headcount by 400,000 last year. Driven in large part by Amazon and its rivals, New York added 5,000 warehouse jobs in 2020, a 40% jump.

‘Very Long Way’ to Go

Meanwhile, restaurant employment jumped by 15,000 in April, the biggest gain in months.

“With indoor occupancy increasing and the warmer weather leading to more people dining outdoors, restaurants are staffing up, which is good news,” said Andrew Rigie, executive director of the NYC Hospitality Alliance. “But we’re still a very long way from pre-pandemic employment levels.”

Another sign of progress was an unexpected increase of 5,100 jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation, up 11% in one month.

Broadway performers stage a pop-up show in Times Square, March 15, 2021.
Broadway performers stage a pop-up show in Times Square, March 15, 2021.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

With sports venues allowing tens of thousands more fans and Broadway shows announcing reopening dates in the fall, the sector could see a sharp upswing in employment. A recent report from state Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli showed arts and related jobs plunged 66% last year.

The long-term questions about the return of tourists and office workers in Manhattan remain unanswered, notes the Independent Budget Office.

Some 2,000 building service workers returned to work in April, which could be a sign that landlords believe their tenants will be calling back employees.

“But many of us have gotten used to working remotely and that will have a major impact on real estate and the vitality of our business districts,” said Ronnie Lowenstein, the longtime head of the Independent Budget Office. “Commuters are not streaming in, staying for shopping and entertainment.”

She’s even more worried about tourism, an industry that accounted for more than 300,000 jobs before the pandemic.

Business travel is likely to be only a fraction of its pre-pandemic level as companies mandate Zoom to replace expensive trips.

And the city, which drew 66 million tourists annually before the pandemic, counts on free-spending international tourists — many coming from countries still frozen by the pandemic.

“We rely heavily on tourist-related industries and they are not going to come back until the attractions are back and until visitors see New York as an attractive and safe destination,” Lowenstein said.

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