One Year of the COVID Economy

Nearly half of adults experienced loss of employment income in their household since March 13, 2020

Anthony P. Carnevale
Mar 22 · 7 min read

By Anthony P. Carnevale

One year ago, a novel coronavirus spread rapidly across the United States, leading to widespread school and business closures. As if the sobering death toll weren’t enough, the impact on the economy has been devastating. Overall job losses from the start of the recession reached 21 million in April before falling slowly. Forty-seven percent of adults experienced a loss of employment income in their household between March 13, 2020, and early February 2021.

Job losses slowed after the initial shutdown of businesses, and overall job losses since March 2020 dropped to less than 5.7 million in 2021. However, the pace of the recovery has stalled as the virus continues to infect the population, and the unemployment rate has held steady at 6 percent since October.

A few key economic trends have emerged during the recession. Job losses and loss of income have fallen disproportionately on workers in occupations and industries that rely on in-person interaction, adults in lower-income households, and women, Black and Latino workers.

Visit our website to explore the data on job losses and unemployment rates one year into the pandemic. We’ve broken them down by household income, occupation, industry, gender, race/ethnicity, and education level.

Household Income

Adults from lower-income households are more likely to have experienced a loss of employment income in their household than those from higher-income households. Fifty-six percent of adults from households with incomes below $25,000 experienced a loss of employment income between March 13, 2020, and early February 2021, compared to 29 percent of adults from households with incomes of $200,000 or above (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Adults from lower-income households were more likely to experience loss of employment income in their household during the pandemic.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from US Census Bureau, Household Pulse Survey, February 3–15, 2021.

Occupations and Industries

The spread of COVID-19 has devastated occupations and industries that rely on in-person interaction. While some workplaces were able to transition their employees and customers to a virtual format, others faced closures or were unable to continue normal operations amid widespread social distancing and stay-at-home orders. As a result, workers in occupations that rely on face-to-face contact were more likely to experience job losses overall. The occupations with the highest shares of job losses from March 2020 to February 2021 were food preparation and serving (20 percent of all jobs lost); education, legal, community service, arts, and media (14 percent of all jobs lost); and personal care and service occupations (13 percent of all jobs lost) (Table 1).

Table 1. Food preparation and serving-related occupations had the largest share of job losses across occupations from March 2020 to February 2021.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, various months.

Note: Columns may not sum to totals due to rounding.

The leisure and hospitality industry was hit hard in the first few months of the pandemic, when it accounted for 25 percent of jobs lost across industries. By February 2021, job losses in the leisure and hospitality industry reached a staggering 41 percent of job losses across industries since March 2020 (Table 2). Job losses in professional services and other services industries followed at 14 and 9 percent of all job losses, respectively. By contrast, the wholesale and retail industry actually added some jobs as people shopped online and had merchandise delivered to their houses.

Table 2. The leisure and hospitality industry had the largest share of job losses across industries from March 2020 to February 2021.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, various months.

Note: Columns may not sum to totals due to rounding.

Gender

The recession has been a setback for women after decades of progress in the workforce. Women were more likely to work in jobs that were deeply affected during the initial downturn, and, in spring 2020, they were four times more likely than men to report that they were not working so they could care for children. More than 2.3 million women have left the labor force since February 2020, compared to about 1.8 million men.

Women accounted for more than half of job losses in the first seven months of the recession even though they make up less than half the workforce. By February 2021, women had lost more than 2.6 million jobs since March 2020, a change in employment of -3.6 percent, while men had lost about 3 million jobs, a change of -3.7 percent (Figure 2).

Figure 2. In the early months of the recession, women lost more jobs than men despite representing less than half the workforce.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, various months.

Race and Ethnicity

The recession has had disparate effects on employment across racial and ethnic groups, exacerbating inequality in the labor market. The initial recession hit Latino workers particularly hard. In the early months of the pandemic, 61 percent of Latino adults experienced a loss of employment income in their households, compared with 56 percent of Black adults and 43 percent of White adults.

By February 2021, Black workers had experienced the largest percent change in employment since March 2020, with 930,000 Black workers losing jobs. Nearly 1 million Latino workers, 3.5 million White workers, and 270,000 workers from other racial/ethnic groups lost jobs since the start of the recession (Figure 3).

Figure 3. Black workers had the biggest drop in share of employment among racial/ethnic groups since March 2020.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, various months.

Education Level

Workers with lower levels of education were more likely to experience job losses, especially in the early months of the recession. Overall, from March 2020 to February 2021, those with some college or associate’s degrees experienced especially high rates of job losses relative to their share of employment. By contrast, workers with bachelor’s degrees or higher were more insulated from job losses, as they were during the Great Recession of 2008 (Figure 4). They were also more likely to telework in the early months of the pandemic.

Figure 4. Workers with less education faced more job losses since March 2020.

Source: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce analysis of data from the US Census Bureau and Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey, various months.

The Road to Recovery

The economic recovery depends in large part on how the public health situation progresses in the coming months. Jobs will return slowly when the pandemic subsides. The unemployment rate in the US will fall to 5.3 percent in 2021 and to 4 percent between 2024 and 2025, according to the Congressional Budget Office. The $1.9 trillion stimulus bill signed into law on March 11 will help spur the recovery in the coming months. For the individuals who have borne the brunt of the recession, however, its effects may very well last beyond the next few years. Students who graduate during the recession will face economic scarring that has the potential to lower their earnings throughout their careers.

Dr. Carnevale is the director and research professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the links between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

Follow the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce on Twitter (@GeorgetownCEW), LinkedIn, YouTube, and Facebook.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a…

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Anthony P. Carnevale

Written by

Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute.

Georgetown CEW

The Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce is a nonprofit, independent research institute that studies the link between education and the workforce.

Medium is an open platform where 170 million readers come to find insightful and dynamic thinking. Here, expert and undiscovered voices alike dive into the heart of any topic and bring new ideas to the surface. Learn more

Follow the writers, publications, and topics that matter to you, and you’ll see them on your homepage and in your inbox. Explore

If you have a story to tell, knowledge to share, or a perspective to offer — welcome home. It’s easy and free to post your thinking on any topic. Write on Medium

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store