April’s Unprecedented Jobs Report Illustrates How Recovery May Play Out In Months Ahead

The April jobs report, issued by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), registered the loss of 20.5 million U.S. non-farm jobs in the month; the largest monthly loss in recorded history. With employment dropping in almost every industry, the unemployment rate in the U.S. climbed to 14.7 percent, its highest since the Great Depression. While the numbers are dramatic and the future is uncertain, one potential bright spot in the federal government’s figures is a sizable majority of the unemployed, 78 percent, are on temporary layoff or furlough, rather than terminated, and millions of people should be able to go back to work as the economy reopens.

In its analysis of the BLS data, The Conference Board says that the unemployment rate underestimates the amount of slack currently in the labor market—5.1 million additional workers are now working part time, even though they prefer a full-time job, and the number of people outside the labor force grew by 6.6 million, showing that many are feeling discouraged about their job search. Workforce participation is expected to pick up in the coming months, however, as the economy ramps up.

A side effect of the job loss is that in April, average hourly earnings for all employees on private non-farm payrolls increased by $1.34 to $30.01, according to the BLS. The Conference Board notes that this increase in earnings rose for the wrong reasons. Large layoffs of mostly low-paid workers raised the average pay, as was the case during the Great Recession.

The BLS data also shows that the pandemic’s economic hardships are not evenly distributed across the country’s population. While the overall unemployment rate increased by 11.2 percent between February and April, the increase was 12.8 percent for women, 14.5 percent for Hispanics, 19.3 percent for those ages 20-24 and 20.9 percent for those ages 16-19. Over the past 12 months, the overall unemployment rate increased by 11.1 percent. The increase was 6.1 percent for management, professional and related occupations, versus a 23.1-percent increase for service occupations. The data shows losses were felt by all types of workers, which increased much more dramatically for those without a college degree.

Coinciding, and mirroring the data reported by the BLS, The Conference Board’s Employment Trends Index (ETI) also declined further in April. Following a sharp downturn in March, it stood at 43.43 in April, down from 57.87 one month earlier, and is down 60.2 percent from a year ago.

“The Employment Trends Index plunged in March and April, with all components of the index moving far into negative territory,” says Gad Levanon, head of The Conference Board Labor Markets Institute. “A decline in jobs of this magnitude is unprecedented. The principal objective of the economy going forward is to accommodate the delicate balance of getting people back to work while minimizing the spread of the virus. Millions of workers in businesses that were shut down will return to work over the coming months as states start to reopen their economies. However, for many companies, massive layoffs will continue in the coming months as they try to adjust to lost revenue with cost cuts. Beginning in May or June, we expect that the number of workers returning to work will be larger than the number being furloughed or laid off. This would mean the unemployment rate will start to decline. At the end of the year, however, the labor market may still be in worse condition than it was at the peak of the Great Recession.”

In determining its Employment Trends Index, the Conference Board aggregates eight labor market indicators that it has found are accurate within their own areas. It notes that aggregated individual indicators are placed into a composite index to filter out “noise” and show underlying trends more clearly. April’s decrease was fueled by negative contributions from all eight of the components.

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