17 Million U.S. Workers Have Been Hit by the COVID Downturn

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  • Nearly 17 million U.S. workers lost their jobs or saw their wages decline in the course of the pandemic.
  • More than 4 million dropped out of the workforce altogether.

Talk about a widespread impact.

When the coronavirus pandemic first hit U.S. soil, it didn't just cause a major health crisis. It also spurred an intense economic crisis that many Americans are still trying to recover from.

In April 2020, the national unemployment rate reached its highest level on record. And the Economic Policy Institute (EPI) reports that as of October 2021, nearly 17 million workers had suffered some sort of economic setback resulting from the pandemic.

Among those people, 7.4 million were, at some point, officially unemployed. Meanwhile, 2.9 million were unemployed in practice but were misclassified as employed or not in the labor force.

Of course, not everyone whose finances were hurt in the pandemic experienced job loss. A good 2.1 million remained employed but experienced a reduction in hours -- and pay.

And then, there were 4.4 million people who dropped out of the labor force completely. For some, that may have been a necessary thing to do in the absence of childcare access. For others, the pandemic may have spurred an early retirement.

Either way, it's clear that the economic blow of the pandemic is one that could take Americans years to recover from -- especially since the health crisis is far from over.

The struggles continue

These days, jobs are more plentiful than they were during the earlier stages of the pandemic. In spite of that, returning to work isn't as easy as it may seem.

As Elise Gould, a Senior Economist at the EPI puts it, when it comes to getting back into the labor force, "The biggest issues are health and safety concerns related to the pandemic as well as lingering caretaking needs. Also, some may not be interested in the wages and working conditions offered in light of health and safety and caretaking concerns."

The latter point explains why certain industries, like retail and restaurants, have really struggled to hire workers this year. Given that these industries are notorious for paying sub-par wages, it stands to reason that workers aren't willing to risk their health for minimal pay.

Gould also points to caretaking needs as a barrier to getting back to work. While schools have largely reopened for in-person learning, the COVID-19 outbreak tore through nursing homes and senior facilities. And now, many people may be hesitant to let loved ones reside in those facilities while the outbreak is still raging. As such, some people may be unable to return to work due to having to care for family members.

Of course, these circumstances may be giving some job seekers an upper hand. With companies being so desperate to hire, workers are in a solid position to negotiate higher wages and benefits to improve their financial picture.

Gould feels this set of circumstances might better workers in the long run. "Higher levels of quits may translate into better wages, benefits, and working conditions," she explains.

Moving forward

While the unemployment picture has improved since the start of the pandemic, Gould insists that "millions remain hurt in the current economy." Those who are struggling to get back to work may want to explore their options for flexible job situations -- especially those who have landed in a caregiving role.

Of course, not every job situation lends itself to remote work. Restaurant servers, for instance, can't shuttle food around remotely. But these days, employers may be willing to be more flexible with regard to scheduling and hours, so that's something job seekers can try to use to their advantage. Jobless workers may also have an easier time piecing together an income with a series of part-time jobs rather than aiming for full-time work.

For better or worse, at this stage of our economic recovery, it's doubtful that Americans will see a fourth stimulus check hit their bank accounts anytime soon. And so, those who are struggling with unemployment or income loss may still, unfortunately, have a long road ahead of them.

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