U.S. employers added 199,000 new jobs in December, 50,000 fewer than November, the Labor Department reported Friday, as business continue to struggle to fill vacancies due to American workers’ reluctance to return to the workforce during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Despite the hiring slowdown, December’s jobless rate fell to a healthy 3.9% — a 22-month low — from November’s 4.2%.

December’s modest jobs gains belie the fact that 2021 was one of the best years for U.S. workers in decades, even though the pandemic caused the previous year to be one of the job market’s worst since the government began tracking hiring in 1939.

A monthly average of 537,000 jobs were added to the economy in 2021, the Labor Department said Friday, and a record 6.4 million jobs were created”America is back to work,” President Biden declared Friday before reporters at the White House. “The increase in Americans joining the labor force was the fastest this year of any year since 1996.”

Companies posted a record high number of job vacancies in 2021 and offered sharply higher pay to try to attract and retain employees, a record number of whom quit their jobs in search of higher-quality positions.

Biden said U.S. workers saw their wages increase last year by nearly 16%, “the highest in history.”

“Wage gains for all workers who are not supervisors went up more in 2021 than any year in four decades. There’s been a lot of press coverage of people quitting their jobs,” Biden said. “Well, today’s report tells you why: Americans are moving up to better jobs with better pay, with better benefits. That’s why they’re quitting their jobs.”

December’s report reflects the state of the economy early in the month, before the highly contagious omicron variant sickened millions of people in the U.S., forcing the cancellation of thousands of commercial flights and leading to reduced traffic at bars and restaurants and some school closures.

Many economists believe job growth may slow in January and possibly in February because of the omicron outbreak, which has forced millions of sick workers to quarantine at home, potentially disrupting employers, including hospitals, airlines and ski resorts.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press and Reuters.

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