How the pandemic consumed the labor market

A week-by-week breakdown of how the coronavirus moved through different sectors

A Hialeah city employee distributes printed unemployment forms to Miami-Dade County residents in early April. (Miami Her
A Hialeah city employee distributes printed unemployment forms to Miami-Dade County residents in early April. (Miami Herald/TNS)

As the novel coronavirus pandemic brought business to a halt, the pain rippled outward, blowing up sector after sector.

According to a detailed analysis of unemployment claims, no industry was left untouched.

After that first chaotic week of lockdowns mid-March, as officials scrambled to slow the spread of the deadliest pandemic in more than a century, restaurants and theaters saw job losses slow while losses in other sectors, such as construction and supply-chain work, accelerated.

Now, it appears the economic upheaval is hitting professional and public-sector jobs that some once regarded as safe.

The U.S. Labor Department doesn’t release jobless claims by industry. Building on the work of economist Ben Zipperer and his colleagues at the Economic Policy Institute, the Washington Post analyzed industry-specific new unemployment-benefit claims from 15 states that publish them.

By looking at claims for the past five weeks as a share of each industry’s employment, we see who has been hit hardest — more than one in four food-service workers filed for unemployment from March 15 through April 18.

But that doesn’t tell us as much about how the pandemic labor market evolved from one week to the next.

For that, we need to focus in on the weekly changes in jobless claims to distinguish between industries where claims are falling and those where claims are steady or increasing.


The data also can help us estimate how the labor market will change in the coming months.

Full-contact industries

Week 1, March 15 to 21

Highest week-to-week change included accommodation and food services; arts entertainment and recreation; hairdressers, auto mechanics and laundry workers.

The first week of closures slammed headfirst into industries that require the most face-to-face customer contact — America’s hospitality sector.

More than 7 percent of all restaurant, hotel and bar workers filed for unemployment in this first week alone.

For public officials seeking to enforce social distancing, bars, hotels and movie theaters were obvious targets. They’re discretionary spending and require significant human interaction.

Another category, which the government calls “other services” but primarily is made up of hairdressers, auto mechanics and laundry workers, also suffered swift and significant losses.

The number of newly unemployed filers in all these high-contact industries fell off in subsequent weeks, but they remain the biggest casualties of the crisis.

And unemployment claims probably understate the pain of lower-earning Americans.

Low-wage workers often don’t qualify for benefits because they haven’t spent enough time on the job, or aren’t being paid enough, Zipperer, the economist said.

A survey released Tuesday by Zipperer and his colleague Elise Gould implied unemployment numbers may be significantly worse than government statistics show.


For every 10 people who successfully applied for unemployment benefits during the crisis, they show, another three or four couldn’t get through the overloaded system, and two more didn’t even apply because the system is too difficult.

The producers

Week 2, March 22 to 28

Highest week-to-week change included manufacturing; construction; retail.

By the second week, the shutdown moved from businesses where the primary danger is interacting with customers to those, such as construction and manufacturing, that require in-person interaction with large crews of colleagues.

On March 26, for example, Spokane, Wash.-area custom-cabinet maker Huntwood Industries laid off around 500 employees, according to the Spokesman-Review.

As a manufacturer whose sales depend on the construction industry, it was hit doubly hard by the shutdowns.

Manufacturers were among the first publicly traded companies to note travel and supply-chain risks related to the coronavirus outbreak in China in financial filings, according to a separate analysis by Oxford researchers Fabian Stephany and Fabian Braesemann and collaborators in Berlin.

By March, manufacturers were noting domestic production issues.

Their analysis also shows that, in the middle of March, concern about the coronavirus and its disease, COVID-19, from retail corporations eclipsed that of manufacturers.

Indeed, retail struggled mightily in the second week of the crisis. More workers were told to stay home, and people realized foot traffic often was incompatible with social distancing.

The retail sector wasn’t hit as quickly or as forcefully as food services or entertainment, presumably because the sector includes grocery stores and others who employ workers who were deemed essential.

The supply chain

Week 3, March 29 to April 4

Highest week-to-week change included wholesale trade; retail trade; administrative and waste management.

In the third week, the pain worked its way up the supply chain, as wholesale trade — a sector that includes some sales representatives, truck drivers and freight laborers — got slammed.

In theory, the lockdowns created near-perfect trucking conditions. Traffic vanished, diesel keeps getting cheaper, and the roads are safer than they have been in decades.

Only one problem: There’s not much to haul right now.

Don Hayden, president of Louisville, Ky., trucking company M&M Cartage, feared he would have to lay off about 70 percent of his 400 employees — drivers, mechanics and office staff — in early April. Orders from his customers in heavy manufacturing evaporated.

But just in time, he obtained a Payroll Protection Program loan through his local bank. He was shocked at how rapidly his loan was approved and the money arrived, and he said the U.S. Treasury Department had done an outstanding job.

“We’re good through May and into June,” he said.

“We have a good workforce. We’re proud of them. We sure would like to retain them.”

At this stage in the crisis, the focus shifted from huge, industry-eviscerating swings in jobless numbers to gradual weekly trends that help us guess where the jobless claims will settle in the weeks and months to come.

As industries fall like dominoes, policymakers need to realize the damage isn’t contained to a few specific sectors, said University of Tennessee economist Marianne Wanamaker, a former member of Trump’s Council of Economic Advisers.

She said there may be a temptation to extend benefits for difficult-to-reopen industries such as food service and hospitality, but “it doesn’t comport with the data because the damage is so widespread. It’s not fair to say, ‘Hotel and restaurant workers, you get these really generous packages and everybody else has to go back to work.’”

White-collar workers

Week 4, April 5 to 11

Highest week-to-week change included management; finance and insurance; public administration.


White-collar industries have been shedding jobs since mid-March, albeit at a much lower rate than lower-income sectors.

But as losses in low-income sectors subsided, white-collar jobless claims stayed flat or even intensified. By week four, categories that contain managers, bookkeepers, insurance agents and bank tellers saw some of the worst weekly trends of any sector.

On April 9, the online review site Yelp laid off 1,000 workers and furloughed 1,100 more — about a third of its workforce — as traffic on the site plunged while businesses were locked down.

“The physical distancing measures and shelter-in-place orders, while critical to flatten the curve, have dealt a devastating blow to the local businesses that are core to our mission,” CEO Jeremy Stoppelman wrote at the time.

Jane Oates, president of the employment-focused not-for-profit organization WorkingNation, used to oversee the Labor Department wing that coordinates unemployment claims and training.

“The big difference between coronavirus and the Great Recession is that this has completely stopped the economy across so many sectors,” she said.

During the Great Recession, she and her team had the luxury of flooding support into areas that were being hit hardest in a particular week or month.

They went from state to state and industry to industry, putting out fires as they arose.

The Labor Department can’t address individual problems like that during the coronavirus recession, she said, because everybody’s getting shellacked simultaneously.

The public sector

Week 5, April 12 to 18

Highest week-to-week change included oil, gas and mining; utilities; public administration.


In the week ending April 18, the most recent for which we have data, we no longer can avoid one of the most ominous trends in the entire analysis — a rise in public-sector layoffs.

Utilities, public administration and education services — all of which have close implicit or explicit ties to state and local government — were among the worst-faring sectors on a weekly basis.

To stem the tide of what could be millions of job losses and furloughs, the National League of Cities is pushing for a $250 billion bailout of cities throughout the country.

In Broomfield, Colo., a Denver-area suburb of about 70,000 residents, 235 city and county employees were furloughed on April 22, according to the Broomfield Enterprise.

“The impact of the COVID-19 coronavirus is more significant than any of us could have ever expected for our well-being, as well as our municipal financial stability,” that newspaper reports that officials wrote in a letter to furloughed employees.

State and local governments typically are required to balance their budgets. And now that they’re staring down the barrel of a huge tax-revenue shortfall, “these revenue losses are going to cause government budgets to fall and they’re going to lay people off,” said Zipperer of the Economic Policy Institute.

“You’re seeing the beginnings of a big contraction in the public sector,” he said. “That’s going to be the next huge thing.”

The public sector used to be the bulwark that kept the economy going while the private sector pulled back during a recession, Zipperer said.


“Over the last couple of recessions, the public sector hasn’t played that traditional role,” Zipperer said. “As a result, we’ve seen steeper recessions and slower recoveries.”

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.