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State of the Labor Market

December 2020 Jobs Report: Coronavirus Still Battering Labor Market

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The US economy lost 140,000 jobs last month, and the unemployment rate is at 6.7%, unchanged from November.

The most recent surge in coronavirus cases is once again battering the US labor market. The economic fallout from this wave of cases is hitting the industries and workers pummeled hardest by the initial damage before they fully bounced back from that first hit. This is a particularly vivid reminder that we cannot get back to any semblance of normal until the pandemic is under control.

Employment dropped in December for the first time since the historic drop in April. While the latest decline is nowhere near the size of the spring shock, it did hit many of the same industries. Leisure and hospitality employment shed almost a half million jobs, with over three-quarters of that decline concentrated in food services and drinking places. Until the coronavirus is defeated, workers and businesses in the leisure and hospitality sector are at its mercy.

Data on unemployment and employment rates is a bit more positive, showing merely a stagnation in labor market progress, though even that is a deeply concerning sign right now. Stagnation in the face of elevated joblessness is a recipe for continued pain for the millions thrown out of work. Even then, the data do show a rise in employers shedding workers or at least temporarily, as temporary layoff unemployment rose in December.

These numbers are distressing, but they are reflective of the time when coronavirus vaccines were not rolled out and federal fiscal policy was still deadlocked. Hopefully the recent legislation can help build a bridge to a time when vaccines are fully rolled out and the labor market can sustainably heal. Until then the labor market remains in a precarious position.