More than nine million Americans said in May that they wanted jobs and couldn’t find them. Companies said they had more than nine million jobs open that weren’t filled, a record high.

As the economy reopens, the process of matching laid-off workers to jobs is proving to be slow and complicated, a contrast to the swift and decisive layoffs that followed the initial stage of the pandemic in early 2020.

The disconnect helps to explain why so many companies are complaining about having trouble filling open positions so early in a recovery. It also helps to explain why wages are rising briskly even when the unemployment rate, at 5.9% in June, is well above the pre-pandemic rate of 3.5%. The relatively high jobless rate suggests an excess of labor supply that in theory should hold wages down.

This has implications for policy makers: Sand in the wheels of the labor market could cause inflation pressures that spur Federal Reserve policy makers to pull back on low interest rate policies meant to support growth. In the longer-run, on the other hand, the slow matching process could have benefits, leaving workers in jobs they prefer and the economy more efficient.

Several factors are behind the development: Many workers moved during the pandemic and aren’t where jobs are available; many have changed their preferences, for instance pursuing remote work, having discovered the benefits of life with no commute; the economy itself shifted, leading to jobs in industries such as warehousing that aren’t in places where workers live or suit the skills they have; extended unemployment benefits and relief checks, meantime, are giving workers time to be choosy in their search for the next job.

With many Americans vaccinated but many international borders still closed, tour operators say domestic demand is not only booming but in some cases exceeding supply.

At the adventure company Backroads, founder and president Tom Hale said summer trips are mostly sold out, with few opportunities to add itineraries because hotels in always-popular places like national parks and other outdoors-focused destinations are booked up.

“We are overwhelmed,” said Hale, who noted bookings are at “an absolute all-time high — by a long shot. We’re up over 40% than we were in 2019, which was our previous high watermark.

“Not only are we pretty much full, for all practical purposes … what we are also seeing throughout the U.S. is that the kind of lodging category that we operate in, which is pretty high-end, is also full. So we can’t get more accommodations. We are literally filled up.”

The Globus family of brands is having similar capacity challenges, said COO Pam Hoffee.

“We basically can’t get any more space,” she said. “We would love to add more capacity in the parks, but they have basically said they can’t give us any more, and even some places outside of the parks that we need in order to have a park tour are filling up, as well. So if people want to do a park tour, they should for sure book it now.”

She said Alaska is also filling up quickly, although Globus has been able to add some capacity there with cruise lines not yet sailing.

Denali National Park and Preserve.

Denali National Park and Preserve. Photo Credit: Galyna Andrushko via Insight Vacations

Intrepid, the Australia-based adventure operator that primarily served inbound travelers pre-pandemic but which has added a number of itineraries for domestic travelers in key markets, said the U.S. is currently its biggest seller. And searches and bookings for its new lineup targeting Americans have surged since the CDC said vaccinated Americans can travel domestically.

The company said web traffic to its U.S. destination and trip pages was up 205% in March and April compared with January and February. And domestic bookings in the U.S. are up 50% from February to March.

Package vacation seller Pleasant Holidays said it was adding 180 new properties, including everything from luxury spa resorts to family-friendly vacation rentals to budget-conscious hotels, in order to meet demand.

“We are electronically connected with most hotel partners who provide dynamic rates and inventory so we can sell inventory until it’s no longer available,” said CEO Jack Richards. “Our bookings for the USA are very close to 2019 levels, which was a record year for the company.” 

The “help wanted” signs seem to hang ubiquitously in storefronts, and job websites, newspapers and billboards feature opportunities to lure people back to work after COVID-19’s financial devastation.

Heading into a summer season that is crucial to New Jersey’s economy, the early stages of the pandemic recovery have produced a puzzling — and politically divisive — scenario.

There are plenty of jobs available but not enough people filling them.  

Job openings reached their highest level nationally in February, the U.S. Department of Labor said. But hiring has been choppy, as evidenced in last week’s job report: 266,000 jobs were added last month, down from 770,000 in March.

A record 44% of business owners in April reported job openings they could not fill, according to the latest report by NFIB, the small-business advocacy group.

The imbalance threatens to dampen profits for business owners who had hoped to rebound this year after a brutal 2020 due to the widespread lockdown orders. It could also mean higher prices for something as simple as a hamburger, fewer available rooms at hotels and delays in manufacturing and construction, business owners said.

In the meantime, political arguments have come to define what’s driving the labor shortage.

Many conservatives blame unemployment benefits of an extra $300 a week, saying they have gone from being a lifeline during lockdown to a cushion incentivizing people to stay at home. Democrats like Gov. Phil Murphy argue that it is a temporary glitch that will work itself out as the economy recovers with the aid of eased restrictions and greater vaccinations.

A confluence of factors has created “a perfect storm right now,” as New Jersey Business & Industry Association President Michele Siekerka put it.

More:A majority of NJ approves of COVID-19 restrictions so far, but also wants them lifted

Why there is a lack of workers

John and Amy Costa, pictured with their son, John, and daughter, Chrissy, own Cluck'n Crabs in the Manahawkin section of Stafford.

While she and other business leaders agree that a lack of child care options, stalled federal visas for overseas employees and general hesitancy among people to reenter the workforce contribute to the shortage, there is a dispute about whether unemployment benefits are keeping people home instead of working.

Murphy last week called the worker shortage “a passing reality,” but employers are nonetheless raising alarms that they may not recover this year if they can’t find the help they need.

“I’ve got ads in every paper. I’m on the radio. I’m giving bonuses,” said John Costa, owner of Cluck’n Crabs in Stafford. “I’m in panic mode right now.”

Costa’s takeout and delivery business typically has about 30 full- and part-time employees on the payroll by now, but as of last week he had “below 20 going into, literally, the busiest time of the year.”

Like many other employers, Costa said he has heard directly from job prospects that they are better off collecting unemployment, enriched with an additional $300 weekly from the federal government, than working.

Those employers also say they’re offering more than the current $12 minimum wage to entice people back

The Space Coast continued to gain jobs in March, as Brevard County pulls out of a pandemic-fueled economic downturn.

The problem now: Many employers are finding it hard to fill jobs that are available.

Brevard’s total nonagricultural employment increased to 230,000 in March, a gain of 2,400 jobs from February. The 1.1% job gain in Brevard was the seventh-highest percentage increase of the state’s 25 metropolitan areas and metropolitan divisions, according to newly released data from the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity.

The job count in Brevard, however, remains 3,100 below the level in March 2020, at a time when the pandemic was beginning.

“I think we’re doing fantastic in Brevard County,” as the economic recovery continues, CareerSource Brevard President Marci Murphy said. “Our issue is going to be finding job-seekers to fill the open positions. Employers are having a hard time finding the job-seekers. It’s across the board.”

Murphy said the issue is widespread in the job market, including in aerospace, health care, manufacturing and retail.

CareerSource Brevard President Marci Murphy says the issue now in the job market is "finding job-seekers to fill the open positions. Employers are having a hard time finding the job-seekers. It's across the board."

“Basically, we’re sitting at full employment,” Murphy said.

Restaurant sector issues:As unemployment drops, Space Coast restaurants face a hiring crisis

More COVID-19 vaccines help:Florida labor economist: Increased COVID-19 vaccinations will help boost job picture

Downtown Melbourne shopkeepers are experiencing “significant” problems trying to hire new employees, Melbourne Main Street Executive Director Kim Agee said.

Based on results of a merchant poll, Agee plans to work with CareerSource Brevard to help inform downtown business owners about hiring resources.

“That is the thread that I’m seeing across the board: They have job openings. They’re getting all kinds of candidates. They’re setting up interviews — and five-people-deep don’t even show up,” Agee said. “They confirm the day before, and they’re just not coming in. I’m hearing it from all kinds of industry — from restaurant to retail to office.”

Brevard unemployment at 4.5%

Brevard’s unemployment rate was 4.5% in March, unchanged from February and down from 5.2% in March 2020. The local jobless rate had risen as high as 13.2% last April.

The March data ranks Brevard tied for sixth among the state’s metropolitan areas and tied for 25th among the state’s 67 counties, for having the lowest jobless rate in March.

Melbourne Main Street Executive Director Kim Agee said downtown Melbourne shopkeepers are experiencing “significant” problems trying to hire new employees, with some people not showing up for scheduled job interviews.

A separate state database shows that the Brevard labor force expanded by 2,684 from February to March, with 2,668 more people employed and 16 more people unemployed. That’s a sign of more people entering the local labor force, as job prospects improve.

The labor force data is based on a survey of households, while the job count data is based on a survey of up to 20,000 employers. So the two reports do not precisely match, although they show similar trends.

Adrienne Johnston, chief economist for the Florida Department of Economic Opportunity, said she is seeing job opportunities strengthening across the state as more people receive the COVID-19 vaccine, and are less hesitant to venture out to stores, restaurants and entertainment venues.

Just as the downturn occurred faster than previous recessions, so