Jobs and the Future of Work

5 facts about how COVID-19 is affecting unemployment in the U.S.

A man wearing a protective face mask walks past a homeless man sitting on a sidewalk in Manhattan, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in New York city, New York, U.S., May 5, 2020. REUTERS/Mike Segar - RC2JIG93BO16

Image: REUTERS/Mike Segar

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United States

  • Unemployment among all groups of workers has increased sharply in the COVID-19 recession.
  • But some have been worse affected than others, including women and immigrants.
  • Pew Research has compared the impact of the global pandemic to the Great Recession and the Great Depression.
City employees hand out unemployment applications on April 8, 2020, in Hialeah, Florida.
City employees hand out unemployment applications Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

The COVID-19 outbreak and the economic downturn it engendered swelled the ranks of unemployed Americans by more than 14 million, from 6.2 million in February to 20.5 million in May 2020. As a result, the U.S. unemployment rate shot up from 3.8% in February – among the lowest on record in the post-World War II era – to 13.0% in May. That rate was the era’s second highest, trailing only the level reached in April (14.4%).

The rise in the number of unemployed workers due to COVID-19 is substantially greater than the increase due to the Great Recession, when the number unemployed increased by 8.8 million from the end of 2007 to the beginning of 2010. The Great Recession, which officially lasted from December 2007 to June 2009, pushed the unemployment rate to a peak of 10.6% in January 2010, considerably less than the rate currently, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of government data.

The unemployment rate in May might have been as high as 16%, by the U.S. government’s estimate. But it is not recorded as such because of measurement challenges that have arisen amid the coronavirus outbreak. Also, a sharp decline in labor force participation among U.S. workers overall may be adding to the understatement of unemployment. In May, 9 million Americans not in the labor force were in want of a job compared with 5 million in February, per government estimates. But these workers are not included in the official measure of unemployment. Thus, the COVID-19 recession is comparable more to the Great Depression of the 1930s, when the unemployment rate is estimated to have reached 25%.

Unemployment among all groups of workers increased sharply in the COVID-19 recession. But the experiences of several groups of workers, such as women and black men, in the COVID-19 outbreak vary notably from how they experienced the Great Recession. Here are five facts about how the COVID-19 downturn is affecting unemployment among American workers.

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1. The unemployment rate for women in May (14.3%) was higher than the unemployment rate for men (11.9%). This stands in contrast to the Great Recession, when the unemployment rate for women had peaked at 9.4% in July 2010 compared with a peak of 12.3% for men in January 2010.

One reason women have seen a greater rise in unemployment in the current downturn is that they accounted for the majority of workers on the payrolls of businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector and educational services sector in February. Employment in these two sectors fell by 39% and 15% from February to May, respectively, leading most other sectors by a wide margin. By contrast, job losses in the Great Recession arose primarily from the construction and manufacturing sectors, where women have a much lighter footprint than men.

Unemployment rate for women.
The unemployment rate for women. Image: Pew Research Center

2. The unemployment rate for black men in May (15.8%) was substantially less than the peak rate they faced in the Great Recession (21.2%). Black men are the only group among those examined in this analysis for whom such a notable gap exists. The reasons for this are not entirely clear but are likely rooted in the occupation and industry distributions of black men. Recessions in which the turmoil is centered in goods-producing sectors, such as the Great Recession, appear to take a greater toll on the job prospects of black men. The unemployment rate for black men previously topped 20% in the twin recessions of the early 1980s, when manufacturing employment also took a sharp dive.

Among other men, Hispanic workers faced an unemployment rate of 15.5% in May, higher than the rates for Asian (13.3%) and white (9.7%) men. While the unemployment rates for Asian and white men increased sharply in the COVID-19 recession, they remain below the rates for black and Hispanic men.

Hispanic women had the highest rate of unemployment in May (19.5%), compared with other women or men among the nation’s major racial and ethnic groups. The unemployment rate among white women jumped nearly fivefold, climbing from 2.5% in February to 11.9% in May. A steep increase in the unemployment rate among Asian women also pushed their unemployment rate in May (16.7%) to near parity with the unemployment rate among black women (17.2%). The recent experience of white and Asian women stands in contrast to their experience in the Great Recession, when their unemployment rates peaked at levels substantially below the levels reached for black and Hispanic women.

Unemployment by gender and race.
Hispanic women see a steeper drop in employment levels. Image: Pew Research Center

3. Immigrants saw their unemployment rate jump higher than the rate for U.S.-born workers in the COVID-19 downturn, mirroring their experience in the Great Recession. In February, immigrants and U.S.-born workers had similarly low rates of unemployment, 3.6% and 3.8%, respectively. By May, the unemployment rate for immigrants had risen to 15.7%, compared with 12.4% for U.S.-born workers.

The steeper increase in the unemployment rate for immigrants is driven by the experience of Hispanic workers who comprised 47% of the immigrant workforce in February, compared with 12% of the U.S.-born workforce. Compared with non-Hispanic workers, Hispanic workers are relatively young and are less likely to have graduated from college. Additionally, 44% of Hispanic immigrants in the labor force are estimated to have been unauthorized in 2016. These characteristics of Hispanic workers make them more vulnerable to job losses in economic downturns.

Unemployment amongst immigrants
Unemployment amongst immigrants Image: Pew Research Center

4. Workers in all but one age group saw their unemployment rate climb into the double digits in May due to the COVID-19 outbreak, unlike the Great Recession when this was true only for younger workers. The unemployment rate among young adults ages 16 to 24 (25.3%) exceeded the rate among other workers by a substantial margin in May, more than double the rate among workers 35 and older. A key reason is the concentration of young adults in higher-risk industries, such as food services and drinking places, that were more affected by the need for social distancing and government mandated shutdowns.

Changes in the unemployment rate by age in the COVID-19 recession are consistent with patterns in past recessions. During the Great Recession the unemployment rate for young adults peaked at 20% in June 2010, compared with no greater than 10.9% among older workers.

Unemployment, by age.
Unemployment, by age. Image: Pew Research Center

5. Unemployment rates in the COVID-19 downturn are lower among workers with higher levels of education, as in the Great Recession. The unemployment rate in May was lowest among workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher education (7.2%), the only group among those examined not to experience an unemployment rate in the double digits. In contrast, 18.5% of workers without a high school diploma were unemployed in May. In the Great Recession, the peak unemployment rates for the different groups ranged from 5.3% among those with a bachelor’s degree or higher education to 17.9% among those without a high school diploma.

A unique factor in the COVID-19 recession is the significance of teleworking in keeping people on the job. The option to telework varied considerably across workers in February depending on their education level, with those with a college degree six times as likely to have the option as those without a high school diploma, 62% vs. 9%. Nonetheless, the May unemployment rate among college graduates was nearly four times that of February.

Unemployment, by education level.
Unemployment, by education level. Image: Pew Research Center
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