Elections & Government
In December 2019, 159 million people were employed in the US. The unemployment rate sat at 3.6%. Between February and April, as the pandemic ramped up, almost 25 million Americans lost their jobs, sending the unemployment rate up to a record 14.8%. By the end of 2020, many Americans who lost employment in the spring had returned to work, but there were still roughly 9 million fewer people at work in the US compared to one year earlier.
Which occupations shed the most jobs in 2020 and who did that affect? Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) illuminates the employment change by occupation and shows how lower-income workers have been particularly affected by job loss during the pandemic.
In December 2020, there were 8.9 million fewer people employed in the US compared to the year before. But that net employment change was unevenly spread across different occupations.
Employment was down the most in personal care services at the end of 2020, with 2.8 million fewer people employed last December compared to the same month in 2019. That means that nearly half — 46% — of personal care workers employed in December 2019 were out of a job at the end of 2020. This category includes people like hairdressers, exercise trainers, and childcare workers, many of whom were unable to continue work amid social distancing measures and lockdowns over the course of the year.
Food preparation services was also down roughly 2 million workers at the end of 2020, with about one in five workers out of a job compared to the year before.
Meanwhile, employment grew the most over the year in healthcare support, an occupation that includes workers like home health aides and medical assistants. This field added 1.2 million workers for an increase of 32% in 2020, much higher than the 5% yearly growth rate in recent years.
Lower-wage workers were more likely to be out of a job at the end of 2020 compared to higher-wage workers.
Employment fell by 3% between December 2019 and December 2020 among occupations with median weekly earnings above the national median of $984 per week. Meanwhile, among those with median earnings below the national average, employment dropped by 8% — more than double the rate among higher-earning occupations.
Two occupations with lower median wages did gain employees: healthcare support and transportation added roughly 2 million workers combined, offsetting some job loss in other areas. Even so, many of those healthcare and transportation workers were likely to face challenges as frontline workers during the pandemic.
At the end of 2020, employment was down the most among Black and Hispanic Americans compared to a year earlier. And across all demographic groups with available data — white, Hispanic, and Black Americans — women lost a greater share of jobs than men in the same group. (The BLS does not publish seasonally adjusted employment data by gender for other racial groups.)
While many factors contributed to employment changes during the pandemic, looking at the demographic makeup of different occupations can help explain some of the outsized job losses.
For instance, women comprise a majority of workers in the three fields with the largest job loss — personal care services, food preparation services, and administrative support. According to the BLS, women made up 77% of all workers in personal care and service occupations in 2019. They accounted for three-quarters of the occupation’s job loss in 2020 — an amount roughly proportional to their share of workers. They were also the majority in food preparation (55%) and administrative support (71%) before the pandemic and accounted for just over half of the job loss in each.
While detailed data on occupational job loss by race and ethnicity is not available, additional BLS data shows that Black and Hispanic women are more likely to work in service occupations compared to other groups: in 2019, 20% of white and Asian women worked in service occupations, compared to 28% of Black women and 31% of Hispanic women. That means that nearly one in three Hispanic women worked in a service job before the pandemic began, compared to one in five white or Asian women.
Some of the pandemic-related job loss was offset by gains in healthcare support — another field predominantly filled by women. In 2019, 87% of all workers in healthcare support were women, and roughly three-quarters of the jobs added in this field during 2020 went to them. But even with these gains, lower-wage women were more than three times more likely to be out of a job at the end of the year compared to women in higher-wage jobs.
For more insight into how Americans have fared during the coronavirus pandemic — from employment changes to health outcomes — visit the State of the Union in Numbers.
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