ANALYSIS

Employment numbers show most jobs at risk

By Neil Irwin © The New York Times Co.

The jobs numbers were the catastrophe that everybody was expecting.

April 2020 — more technically, the period between the second week of March and the second week of April — was the worst month for U.S. workers at least since the Great Depression and possibly in the history of the nation.

That isn’t really a surprise, but one aspect of the latest employment report does help crystallize the nature of what the United States isgrappling with. In a set of tables in the final pages of the jobs numbers, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports the number of jobs gained or lost in each industry, broken down in a fairly fine-grained way.

Across dozens and dozens of industries, only one added a meaningful number of jobs in April: general merchandise stores, including warehouse clubs and supercenters. They increased their payrolls by 93,400 positions.

That makes sense given that Americans need to buy groceries and other at-home staples, and Walmart has said publicly that it is hiring on a large scale to meet demand.

There were a few other sectors with very narrowly positive numbers, including manufacturers of computers and peripherals (employment up 800), monetary authorities (up 100, not very many considering the trillions of dollars in assets the Federal Reserve is buying to stimulate the economy) and the U.S. Postal Service (up 500).

But Walmart and a few odd exceptions aside, there was no shelter in the storm for U.S. workers in the past month. Anyone still thinking that the pandemic’s economic effects are limited to people in restaurants, travel and similar service businesses is very much mistaken. Workers in almost every industry, including those that on the surface shouldn’t be affected by the pandemic at all, are at risk.

Construction employment fell by 975,000. Manufacturing fell by 1.3 million, as assembly lines halted. Clothing stores’ employment dropped by 740,000. The motion picture industry cut 217,000 jobs, and truck transportation 88,000.

Law firm employment was down 64,000 positions, and computer systems design by 93,000. Local governments cut 801,000 jobs, just over half of them in education.

And stunningly, in the middle of a public health crisis, employment in health care fell by 1.4 million as Americans avoided visits to their doctors and dentists for all but the direst emergencies.

These losses are heavily driven by the physical limitations imposed on us or self-imposed during the pandemic. To the degree

there is any silver lining in the April numbers, 18.1 million of the newly unemployed reported being on temporary layoff, whereas only 2 million viewed their job loss as permanent.

“Only.”

On its face, that should be a source of optimism: There is the potential for workers to return to their construction sites, factories, law offices and schools as soon as public health circumstances allow.

But that would inspire more confidence if the job losses were more confined to industries directly affected by the pandemic. It’s hard to imagine how there can be this deep a hit to nearly every major sector of the economy without a major collapse in demand across the board.

The big question the April jobs numbers raise is this: Will there be enough demand in the economy — whether through federal government spending or a private sector snapping back into action — to ensure that sectors far from the epicenter of this crisis can make it through without those 18 million temporary layoffs becoming permanent?