: Small businesses grow more optimistic after states lift restrictions — but hiring is a big problem


The numbers: In March, small-business owners felt the most optimistic since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago, a new survey shows, but they are still being very cautious about future plans.

The closely followed optimism index compiled by the National Federation of Independent Business climbed to a pandemic high of 98.2 last month from 95.8 in February. That’s roughly in line with the survey’s historic average

The index is still well below pre-pandemic levels, however. The index stood near an all-time high of 104.5 in February 2020, just a month before the pandemic erupted.

Read: CEOs warn Biden tax hike will hurt economy as battle lines drawn in Washington

What happened: Small businesses have been helped by the lifting of state restrictions this year after a sharp decline in coronavirus cases. Sales have improved and many companies are trying to hire.

One of their biggest problems is finding suitable workers, a seeming oddity given a huge drop in employment during the pandemic. More than 8 million people who held jobs last year are no longer working.

A record 42% of small businesses surveyed said they could not fill open jobs. Small businesses say generous government unemployment benefits are keeping some workers from applying for jobs, but labor shortages go back at least several years.

More than a quarter of companies said they increased pay to lure workers — the highest number in the past year.

The big picture: Small businesses were particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic because so many rely on close personal contact with customers, and few had the resources to easily weather a prolonged period of government restrictions.

The sharp rebound in the economy this year, however, has given them more reason for hope. What would add to the optimism is a rising number of Americans being vaccinated and a continued decline in coronavirus cases.

See: A visual look at how an unfair pandemic has reshaped work and home

What they are saying? “Main Street is doing better as state and local restrictions are eased, but finding qualified labor is a critical issue for small businesses nationwide,”  NFIB chief economist Bill Dunkelberg said.

Market reaction: The Dow Jones Industrial Average

and S&P 500

fell in Monday trading.

: Moderna COVID-19 vaccine rollout begins in England, giving under 30s alternative to AstraZeneca

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