Layoffs Hit Record High in March as Job Openings Sank

In Point Loma, one of San Diego’s few bagel shops closed its doors during the coronavirus pandemic. (Courthouse News photo/Barbara Leonard)

(CN) — A record 11.4 million Americans were laid off in March while the number of open jobs advertised by employers fell to the lowest level in nearly three years, as the Covid-19 crisis began taking its toll on the economy.  

The layoffs are tied to statewide stay-at-home orders that forced the closure of nonessential businesses — including restaurants and bars, which laid off 4.4 million workers — to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

Elise Gould, senior economist at the nonprofit think tank Economic Policy Institute, noted for comparison that in April 2009, the worst month of the previous economic collapse, layoffs totaled 2.7 million.

“Layoffs in March were more than four times larger than the worst month in the Great Recession,” she said.

There were 1.1 million layoffs in the retail industry and 945,000 in the professional and business services sector, according to a Labor Department report released Friday.

Job openings fell sharply in March to 6.19 million — the lowest level since May 2017 — down from a revised 7 million the month before.

For two years, the number of open jobs had outpaced the number of unemployed Americans as the U.S. economy continued a record decade-long growth streak. However, the coronavirus pandemic abruptly ended that trend in March.

Nick Bunker, economic research director at Indeed Hiring Lab, said the data only reflect part of the pandemic’s impact.

“Workers lost jobs at a horrifying rate. And back in March, the coronavirus shock was only being felt in the second half of the month,” he said.

Bunker said that hiring usually falls before job growth drops in a recession, but that wasn’t true in March.

“The March data indicates that this labor market recession is unique,” he said. “Employers led with layoffs and hiring slowed, but not as dramatically as one might have expected. Hiring will be key for getting out of this hole, but these data show just how swiftly and deeply it was dug.”

New hires dropped 13% to 5.2 million, about 650,000 fewer than in February. The number of people quitting their jobs also plunged to 2.8 million in March, compared to 3.4 million the previous month.  

“This is not a good sign — a large number of quits signifies a healthy labor market where people can leave their job to find one that is better for them,” Gould said. “One likely reason quits didn’t drop even further is because people had to, for example, leave a job to take care of a child whose school closed as a result of the virus.”

Friday’s report on job openings and labor turnover in March lags more recent data showing the toll the pandemic has taken on the U.S. economy.

The Labor Department reported a week ago that 20.5 million jobs were lost in April and the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 14.7%. On Thursday, the government said 2.98 million Americans filed for unemployment last week — on top of the 25.3 million people already receiving benefits.

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