BOSTON – The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shutdowns aimed at preventing its spread wiped out more than 20 million American jobs in April, a historic implosion felt in virtually every corner of the economy, federal officials said Friday.
In the first full month of data reflecting the outbreak’s impact, the national unemployment rate jumped to 14.7 percent, a sharp increase over the 4.4 percent rate observed in March when the downward trend started but had not reached full force.
Experts had projected that April’s numbers would be dire, particularly after March only captured a couple of weeks of forced business shutdowns.
Those expectations held true: both the 20.5 million lost jobs and the 10.3 percentage point increase in the unemployment rate were the largest one-month changes since the Bureau of Labor Statistics launched those data series in 1939 and 1948, respectively.
Total non-farm payroll employment in April was about 131 million, effectively wiping out nine-plus years of continuous job growth since the wake of the Great Recession.
Every single category of employment covered in that figure except the federal government experienced losses in April, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics data. The deepest cuts came in the leisure and hospitality sector, where 7.65 million jobs — almost 47 percent of the entire industry — evaporated last month.
Education and health services lost 2.5 million jobs in April, professional and business services lost 2.13 million, and retail trade lost about 2.11 million.
The only BLS-defined industry that gained jobs in April was the federal government. All others experienced losses, with the largest percent drop occurring in the leisure and hospitality sector. [Graphic: Chris Lisinski/SHNS]”Because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic shutdown to combat its spread, the employment situation has completely flipped from just two months ago when much of the United States seemed to be at, or near, full employment,” said Tony Bedikian, head of global markets at Citizens Bank, in a statement. “Several states are relaxing their stay-at-home orders now and governments and businesses have stepped up to support many workers and companies, but it remains to be seen what the new normal will look like.”
An updated unemployment rate for Massachusetts will be released on May 22, but signs ahead of that indicate the state’s outlook will be similarly grim — if not more so — compared to national trends.
New unemployment insurance claims filed between March 15 and May 2 reflect about 20.5 percent of the United States labor force and about 20.9 percent of the Massachusetts labor force.
Adding applicants for the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program who do not qualify for traditional unemployment benefits, Pioneer Institute Research Director Greg Sullivan estimated Friday that the state has been hit even harder, with 25.8 percent of the workforce seeking aid compared to 21.4 percent nationally.
While the sudden damage is unprecedented, it remains largely unknown how long a recovery will take or even when it might begin. The answer to that question depends in part on how reopening processes fare across the world, whether successful treatments or vaccines are developed, and how well government leaders are able to prevent a rebound in transmissions.
“Some industries and companies may be changed forever, but the economy as a whole was on solid footing at the start of the year and should be well-poised for a recovery once the COVID-19 pandemic abates,” Bedikian said.
A wide majority of those unemployed described their situations as short-term: in April’s federal data, 79.4 percent reported being on temporary layoff. However, it is not clear if those positions will still be available after the public health emergency abates.
Even if stay-at-home advisories and non-essential business closures are soon lifted, consumer behavior may not return to pre-pandemic patterns with the same rapidity. A Suffolk University/WGBH/Boston Globe poll of 500 Massachusetts residents released this week found, once activities are again allowed, 54 percent of respondents will still be unwilling to eat out at restaurants, 73 percent unwilling to attend a sporting event and 79 percent unwilling to use public transit.
Some activities were seen more favorably, though. About 71 percent of those polled said they would be comfortable shopping, while 58 percent said they are willing to return to offices or schools in-person.
Gov. Charlie Baker’s order closing non-essential businesses extends until May 18, and a panel tasked with plotting out a phased reopening has already submitted interim reports ahead of a final deadline on that date.