Even as restrictions on businesses began lifting across the United States, another 2.4 million workers filed for jobless benefits last week, the government reported Thursday, bringing the total to 38.6 million in nine weeks.
And while the Labor Department has found that a large majority of laid-off workers expect their joblessness to be temporary, there is growing concern among economists that many jobs will never come back. “I hate to say it, but this is going to take longer and look grimmer than we thought,” Nicholas Bloom, an economist at Stanford University, said of the path to recovery.
Bloom, a co-author of an analysis of the coronavirus epidemic’s effects on the labor market, estimates that 42% of recent layoffs will result in permanent job loss.
“Firms intend to hire these people back,” Bloom said, referring to a recent survey of businesses done by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta. “But we know from the past that these aspirations often don’t turn out to be true.”
In this case, the economy that comes back is likely to look quite different from the one that closed. If social distancing rules become the new norm, causing thinner crowds in restaurants, theaters and stores, at sports arenas, and on airplanes, then fewer workers will be required.
Large companies already expect more of their workers to continue to work remotely and say they plan to reduce their real estate footprint, which will, in turn, reduce the foot traffic that feeds nearby restaurants, shops, nail salons and other businesses.
Concerns about working in close quarters and too much social interaction could also accelerate the trend toward automation, some economists say.
New jobs, mostly at low wages — as delivery drivers, warehouse workers and cleaners — are being created. But many more jobs will vanish.
“I think we’re in for a very long haul,” Bloom said.
In the meantime, the Labor Department’s latest data on unemployment claims, for new filings last week, reflects the shutdown’s continuing damage to the labor force.
“The hemorrhaging has continued,” Torsten Slok, chief economist for Deutsche Bank Securities, said of the mounting job losses.
He expects the official jobless rate for May to approach 20%, up from the 14.7% reported by the Labor Department for April.
A household survey from the Census Bureau released Wednesday suggested that the pain was widespread: 47% of adults said they or a member of their household had lost employment income since mid-March.
Nearly 40% expected the loss to continue over the next four weeks.
In testimony before the Senate on Tuesday, Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell emphasized how devastating prolonged joblessness can be for individual households and for the economy.
“There is clear evidence that when you have a situation where people are unemployed for long periods of time, that can permanently weigh on their careers and their ability to go back to work,” he said.
Emergency relief and expanded unemployment benefits that Congress approved in late March have helped tide households over. Roughly three-quarters of people who are eligible for a $1,200 stimulus payment from the federal government have received it, according to the Treasury Department.
Workers who have successfully applied for unemployment benefits are getting the extra $600 weekly supplement from the federal government, and most states have begun to carry out the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program, which extends benefits to freelancers, self-employed workers and others who don’t routinely qualify.
Many states are still struggling to keep up with the overwhelming demand, drawing desperate complaints from jobless workers who have been waiting two months or more to receive their first benefit check.
The $600 supplement has become a point of contention, drawing criticism from Republican politicians who object to the notion that some workers — particularly low-wage ones — are getting more money in unemployment benefits than they would on the job. But many have also lost their employer-provided health insurance and other benefits.