The Covid-19 pandemic led to the greatest upheaval in the job market since the Great Depression. More than 22 million jobs were lost in March and April, and now, months later, many of those employees — but not all — have been called back to work.
Economists warn that the easiest part of the recovery is already over. Employers who temporarily furloughed workers have already brought back the jobs that they can.
Now comes the harder part: restoring entire industries that have been badly hurt by the pandemic like lodging, tourism and airlines. Jobs will be harder to bring back in those sectors, especially as companies such as US airlines, Boeing and Disney have continued to lay off workers this fall.
These charts show how far the job market fell during the pandemic, and how its comeback is still incomplete.
In February, just before the pandemic hit the United States, the unemployment rate stood at 3.5%, matching a 50-year low.
Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen sharply as many laid-off workers were called back to work. But that quick pace of improvement has leveled off. The 6.9% rate in October is down, but that’s still nearly twice what it was before the pandemic, representing 11 million workers who are willing and able to work but cannot find jobs.
Employers cut 22 million jobs in March and April. Since then, about 54% of those jobs have been gained back. That still leaves a hole of 10.1 million jobs lost since February.
Hiring has slowed in recent months, though. Employers added just 638,000 jobs in October, a far cry from the average of 3.1 million jobs a month recovered from May through July.
All workers have had to adjust to the pandemic, but job losses have hit some harder than others. And the recovery certainly hasn’t been even.
The unemployment rate for White workers is higher than it was before the pandemic, but it’s back down to single digits. The same is true for Asian-American workers and Latinos.
But for Black workers the unemployment rate is 10.8%. That’s a major step backward. Prior to the pandemic, unemployment for Blacks was below 6%, near record-low levels last year.
There are also differences between the number of women and men who have been able to find work. Among people in “prime-working age” — ages 25 to 54 — a smaller percentage of women than men have had jobs.
But that percentage fell more sharply for women under the pandemic, and it has rebounded less. Part of that difference is because some of the industries that employ more women, such as hospitality, retail and education, have been hit hard by the pandemic. But much is the result of women being more likely to stay home with children who could no longer be in school or day care.
Workers with less education have always had a much higher unemployment rate than those with more education. But the gap between the two has grown wider during the pandemic.
The unemployment rate for workers, ages 25 and older with a high school diploma but no college degree was 8.1% in October, up from 3.6% prior to the pandemic in February. Meanwhile, the unemployment rate for those with at least a bachelor’s degree is now below 4.2%, a level that economists generally consider to be an indication of full employment for a group.
Improvement in the job market since April has come largely from workers on temporary layoff who have been called back to work. But the number of those who have lost their jobs permanently is rising.
This includes those whose employers have gone out of business, have cut back on staff permanently or have had temporary jobs come to an end.
That is a serious problem for the job market, because it suggests it will take the labor market a longer time to fully recover from the downturn.
Before the pandemic, the median time that unemployed people had been out of work was about nine weeks. That’s similar to where it stood over the last few years.
The median time plunged to only two weeks in April, as people who had just lost their jobs were counted. But it’s been rising steadily since then, suggesting that long-term unemployment is becoming a growing problem.
The unemployment rates capture only part of the pain in the job market.
That’s because the government counts someone as “unemployed” only if they have looked for work in the previous four weeks or if they’re on a temporary layoff. But there are many other jobless people who would like to work and haven’t been looking recently. It might be because they perceive there are no jobs available in their field, for example.
There are also workers in part-time jobs who would prefer to be working full time, but they’ve had their hours cut due to the recession, or because they haven’t been able to find full-time work.
Combined, those groups — the unemployed, those who want to work but haven’t looked recently, and those working part-time “for economic reasons” — make up what is known as the underemployment rate. And that remained in the double digits in October, at 12.1%, even if well below the April peak of nearly 23%.
Job losses have been widespread throughout the US economy, with virtually every industry being forced to cut jobs.
It’s not just those sectors whose economic woes from the pandemic are easily visible, such as restaurants, bars, stores and hotels. Even employers in areas that might appear to be pandemic-proof — such as health care and government — initially cut cut jobs, as did schools, manufacturers, construction companies and business services firms.
While the job numbers in those all those sectors have rebounded since the shutdowns in April, none have returned to pre-pandemic levels.