A woman holds fliers for a job fair for restaurant and hotel workers, after coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions were lifted, in Torrance, near Los Angeles, California, U.S., June 23, 2021. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

WASHINGTON, July 7 (Reuters) – U.S. job openings rose slightly to a new record high in May and hiring dipped, a sign that the economy could still be struggling with labor shortages as coronavirus restrictions eased across the country.

Job openings, a measure of labor demand, rose by 16,000 to 9.2 million on the last day of May, the Labor Department said in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS report, on Wednesday.

Hiring also dipped to 5.9 million in May from 6.0 million in the prior month. The government reported last Friday that job growth accelerated in June as U.S. companies hired the most workers in 10 months. read more

“The latest survey data suggest that labor shortages remain acute,” said Andrew Hunter, an economist at Capital Economics.

The number of people re-entering the workforce has lagged job openings as the economy recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. More than 9 million people remain officially unemployed. A lack of affordable childcare in particular has been blamed for keeping workers, mostly women, on the sidelines while others have stayed home due to lingering fears about the virus.

Economists polled by Reuters had forecast job openings would rise to 9.39 million in May. Vacancies were little changed in all four regions and the job openings rate was unchanged at 6.0%.

Unfilled vacancies increased by 109,000 in other services and there were an additional 46,000 job openings in state and local government education. Vacancies declined in state and local government and the federal government.

The report also showed the number of people voluntarily leaving their employment in May fell to 3.6 million from 4.0 million in April, although quits levels still rose in the leisure and hospitality, and accommodation and food services sectors. The quits rate is usually seen as a barometer of job market confidence.

People quitting their jobs now accounts for more than two-thirds of all job separations and remains well above pre-pandemic levels.

Economists generally expect the labor crunch to ease in the fall as schools reopen and government-funded unemployment benefits cease while cautioning the labor supply may continue to be lower due to pandemic-related retirements.

Reporting by Lindsay Dunsmuir; Editing by Andrea Ricci

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Colorado continued to slip behind the U.S. recovery in March, adding fewer jobs than it did in February and failing to lower the needle on its unemployment rate for the second month in a row. But it is too soon to put the state in the camp of economic laggards, economists said.

“The March employment gains for Colorado were modest. Given the magnitude of the U.S. employment numbers released earlier in the month, the Colorado numbers were disappointing but not surprising,” said Broomfield economist Gary Horvath.

Initially, the state had reported a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 6.6% in February, but that was revised to 6.4% following downward adjustments in the number of people who had actually rejoined the labor force and were looking for work. The state’s unemployment rate held steady in March, while the U.S. unemployment rate dropped from 6.2% to 6%.

Accustomed to ranking among the 10 lowest unemployment rate states prior to the pandemic, Colorado now ranks 34th, below Mississippi and just ahead of Delaware.

Colorado employers added 6,600 nonfarm payroll jobs between February and March, with 5,800 coming from the private sector and 800 from the public sector. Employment gains last month were down from a revised 9,100 jobs added in February.

The state has recovered 61.1% of the jobs it lost between February and April of last year, which slightly lags the U.S. job recovery rate of 62.4%, said Ryan Gedney, a senior labor economist with the state, during a news call Friday.

After rebounding sharply following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions in December, the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector shed jobs again last month, losing 1,100 positions on a seasonally adjusted basis. Employment in financial activities and construction were also down slightly.

Some of the disruptions in tourism were expected given the winding down of the ski season, Gedney said. He added the March blizzard, the fourth largest in Denver history, shouldn’t matter much for either the March or April employment numbers.

On the plus side, business and professional services added 3,300 jobs last month, while trade, transportation and utility added 1,100 positions.

Colorado was a leader coming out of the 2001 tech-bust recession and the 2007-2009 Great Recession, but this time around, it has lagged in its recovery, Horvath said.

“We have to be patient. Colorado is going to recover at a different rate than other states. Within the state, the recovery will be different based on the geography and mix of regions,” he said.

The Colorado counties with the highest unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, in March were Huerfano at 9.8%, Las Animas at 8.9%, Pueblo at 8.7%, Fremont at 8.4%, and Rio Grande at 7.7%. Colorado’s unadjusted unemployment rate in March was 6.5%.