Toward the end of the longest economic expansion in the history of the United States, workers were finally starting to gain enough of a foothold to see real benefits from economic growth. Unemployment was at a record low, long-stagnant wages were moving up while inflation was low, consumer confidence was sky-high, and more workers felt confident enough about the economy to quit their jobs in pursuit of better work.
The coronavirus pandemic, social distancing, and government-ordered shutdowns brought an end to all of that. The economy entered a recession in March, the National Bureau of Economic Research said Monday. The labor market underwent an unprecedented shock, something akin to a heart attack, suddenly shedding millions of jobs.
Data released by the Department of Labor on Tuesday in its monthly Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, or JOLTS, provide a kind of cardiogram to the sudden collapse in the functioning of the labor market. Nearly all of the economy went into cardiac arrest, with the notable exceptions of the federal government and the financial sector.
In April of 2019, six million workers were hired into new jobs in a single month, including 5.6 million private-sector jobs. Both were record-highs in data stretching back to the turn of the century. There were 7.2 million job openings and the economy added an additional 263,000 jobs in the month.
The Labor Department counted just 5.8 million Americans as unemployed, producing an unemployment rate of 3.6 percent, the lowest rate since 1969. Weekly jobless claims averaged 215,500, the lowest since 1969. The private-sector quits rates, the percentage of workers voluntarily leaving their job, was at the highest rate since 2005, indicating more workers were moving into better jobs.
In March of this year, the hires figure dropped to 5.1 million, just 4.8 million in the private sector. But at that point many businesses were still operating, at least during the early part of the month, and sales had not yet plummeted. By April, private-sector hires fell to just 3.3 million, the lowest level recorded in a data set going back to December 2000. Even at the depths of the Great Recession, hires never sunk that low.
Openings fell to six million in March and then near five million in April. Nonfarm payrolls dropped 700,000 in March and plunged 20.5 million in April. Jobless claims jumped to an average of 2.7 million a week in March and then to five million in April. The worst came in the final week of March and first week in April, when more than six million Americans per week applied for unemployment benefits. Nearly 11.5 million Americans were laid off in March and another 7.5 in April. By April, more than 23 million Americans counted as unemployed, producing an unemployment rate of 14.7 percent. The quits rate fell to the lowest level since 2011.
Layoffs devastated employment in hotels, restaurants, and bars. In March, 4.2 million workers in the category of “leisure and accommodation” lost their jobs, 30.4 percent of the sector’s workforce. In April, an additional 1.5 million lost their jobs, or 19.8 percent of the remaining workforce. Prior to the shutdown, layoffs in the sector typically ran between 200,000 and 250,000 per month.
Entertainment and recreation were similarly smashed. In March, the sector laid off 545,000 workers, or 22.3 percent of its workforce, up from just 77,000 in February. In April, another 259,000 were laid off, 23 percent of the remaining workforce. The workforce percentages can rise even as the number of layoffs shrink because the base shrinks with each successive month of employment contraction.
The catch-all category of “other services”—which includes dry-cleaners, barbers, nail salon workers, groundskeepers, and countless other services that do not get counted elsewhere—saw 884,000 layoffs in March, a 15 percent layoff rate. April saw this come in at 822,000, a 17.7 percent rate.
The real estate and building sectors also suffered deep cuts. Unlike hospitality and leisure—where the deepest job cuts came in March—April was the cruelest month. Six hundred and four thousand construction workers were laid off in March, 7.9 percent of the construction workforce, followed by 689,000 in April, 10.4 percent of the workforce. Real estate laid off 151,000, or 6.4 percent, in March and 200,000, 9.4 percent, in April.layoffs
Retail shops laid off 1.2 million workers in March, 7.8 percent of workers, and 888,000 in April, another 6.6 percent. Normally, this would run between 200,000 and 225,000 per month.
Education and health care saw big layoffs. Layoffs in education services were 272,000 in March and 246,000 in April, 7.2 and 7.4 percent. Back in February, there had been just 30,000 layoffs. Healthcare layoffs rose from 136,000 in February, a pretty typical month, to over one million in March and 790,000 in April.
The “mining and logging” sector, which includes oil and natural gas drilling, laid off 4.5 percent of its workers in March and another 9.3 percent in April.
Manufacturing layoffs hit 4.9 percent in March and 5.1 percent in April, showing more stability than many other sectors of the economy.
The two least impacted sectors were finance and the federal government. The financial sector laid off 1.2 percent of its workers in March and 0.9 percent in April, about twice the rate of normal layoffs. The federal government laid off 0.6 percent and 0.5 percent, about the normal level in any given month.
But the economy is a dynamic process. Looking at only layoffs and jobless claims can paint an exaggerated picture of the impact of the shutdown. Some workers found jobs in March and April, even in hard hit sectors. The food and accommodations sector hired 845,000 in March and April. Over a million workers were hired in health care. Mining and manufacturing each hired around 600,000 workers each.
Last week, the Labor Department said that the economy added over two million jobs in May and the unemployment rate declined, upending expectations for additional job losses and a further rise in employment. But it will take another month before the May JOLTs report shows us how these jobs rippled though the various sectors of the U.S. economy—which sectors continued to bleed jobs and which added.