AIR Informs Episode #7: The Real Unemployment Rate and Workplace After COVID-19

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The U.S. Department of Labor estimates that 23 million to 24 million people in the U.S. lost their jobs since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in April 2020. However, these numbers may not represent the full impact of the pandemic on the U.S. workforce. On the latest episode of the AIR Informs podcast, AIR Vice President Irma Perez-Johnson explains who is missing from those numbers, why an accurate count matters, and what the road to economic recovery may look like.

  • The unemployment numbers paint an incomplete picture. The Department of Labor’s unemployment figures represent the number of people who are jobless, actively seeking a job, and available for work, as a percentage of the total labor force. However, a new trend has emerged over the last decade: unemployed people deciding not to look for jobs, essentially dropping out of the workforce. These individuals aren’t included in the unemployment statistics, and Perez-Johnson and her colleagues on workforce issues at AIR believe that COVID-19 has exacerbated this trend. While the current unemployment rate is estimated at 14.7%, AIR experts believe an additional eight million Americans are not included in this metric, meaning that the actual rate is closer to 18%.
  • It is important to get an accurate unemployment count. Prior to the pandemic, employers were already concerned about notable skill gaps. If people leave the workforce permanently en masse, as AIR experts suspect, this could exacerbate these skill shortages, curtailing our potential for economic recovery. It is also worth noting that these undercounted individuals are most likely to be young adults, Hispanic, African-American, and individuals without a college degree.
  • Higher unemployment may last awhile. Even if the congressional stimulus measures are effective in helping many businesses weather the pandemic, it is likely that some will not survive, leaving their employees permanently displaced. This is important because prolonged spells of unemployment (27 weeks or longer) not only have an adverse effect on an individual’s income, but also their prospects for future reemployment.
  • Stimulus response can help address issues that predate the pandemic. A federal government investment in areas like broadband, public transit, and roads and bridges could reap multiple rewards. If that investment is paired with skill-building, it could help improve both the infrastructure of the country, as well as the long-term employability of its residents. Similarly, by using the stimulus to sponsor partnerships between the workforce, economic development agencies, educational institutions, and businesses, the government could both propel economic recovery while making the nation more future-ready.
  • Changes already underway in the workforce are likely to continue because of the pandemic. These trends include a broader and more permanent shift to telework; a shift to virtual teaching and learning; and the emergence of new occupations (and, perhaps, the demise of others).