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Cleveland Fed: “What’s Holding Back Employment”


From the Cleveland Fed: What’s Holding Back Employment in the Recovery from the COVID-19 Pandemic?. Excerpts: Bureau of Labor Statistics data indicate that five million jobs lost during the pandemic have not been recovered, but it is difficult to ascertain how many workers will return to available jobs. The Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey includes a detailed set of reasons for nonemployment, including households’ responses to the pandemic that provide a new perspective on reasons for not working. Among prime-age workers, reasons for nonemployment during the SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19) pandemic have shifted substantially from mostly labor demand reasons to primarily labor supply inhibitors. At this point, most nonemployment is connected to three categories: sickness and concerns about COVID-19; child- and eldercare responsibilities; and the residual category “other reasons.” The persistence of these answers and the characteristics of individuals’ providing these answers point to barriers to fully recovering prior employment rates.
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The Household Pulse Survey shows that while the initial shock from the pandemic affected mostly labor demand, persistent supply-side barriers have kept previously employed people from returning to employment. There are various distinct reasons why people are not returning to employment, and the severity of these issues varies by demographic group. Some of these reasons for nonemployment point to persistent shifts in the labor force that may not resolve with the end of the pandemic. The lack of affordable and accessible childcare largely affects women with young children and will likely continue to keep some of these women out of the labor force even after the end of the pandemic because of the increased cost of childcare and the long-term job separations experienced by these mothers. Differences in virus fears and virus risks may make return to employment slower for Black workers, especially in areas with low vaccination rates. The largest category of reasons is “other reasons,” but lower-income and less-educated individuals are substantially overrepresented in this category. These individuals have long had lower workforce participation rates, and research on the benefits cliffs has revealed many situations in which increasing work can lower family incomes because of discrete cutoffs for other benefits. These distinct barriers all have different implications for the labor force and different solutions beyond ending the current public health crisis. By distinguishing which reasons for nonemployment are most limiting for each demographic group, we can better design policies that will help address specific issues for the populations most affected.

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