The U.S. Officially Lost 700,000 Jobs in March. In Reality, It Was Much, Much Worse.

MERRICK, NEW YORK - MARCH 31:  A sign at a dry cleaners notes that the store is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 31, 2020 in Merrick, New York. The World Health Organization declared coronavirus (COVID-19) a global pandemic on March 11.   (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
A sign at a dry cleaners notes that the store is closed due to the coronavirus pandemic on March 31, 2020 in Merrick, New York. Al Bello/Getty Images

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The United States shed 701,000 jobs in March as businesses began to shut down due to the coronavirus crisis, and the unemployment rate jumped up to 4.4 percent, the Labor Department reported Friday. Those losses alone would be on par with the most dire months of the Great Recession. But in reality, the situation was almost certainly much, much worse, since the government collected its data relatively early in the month. (The Labor Department counts people as employed if they worked at any time during the pay period that includes the 12th of the month.) That was before governors started announcing statewide lockdown orders and the tsunami of layoffs began in earnest. These newest figures are essentially a snapshot of the moment the American economy put two feet over the cliff but didn’t yet accelerate into its plunge. After a couple weeks of mass layoffs, Betsey Stevenson—the former chief economist at the Labor Department—thinks the real unemployment rate is probably 16 percent. Her husband, University of Michigan economist Justin Wolfers, thinks it’s probably 13 percent.

Most of the recorded job losses, as you might expect, were in restaurants, bars, and fast-food chains (aka “food services and drinking places”), which dropped 417,000 jobs. Amusement parks, hotels, and retailers had big payroll reductions, as did dentists’ offices, which also makes sense if you stop and think about it for a second or two. But there was also a big drop in temp services employment, which tends to be a leading indicator that businesses are more widely cutting back, and in construction, suggesting that a lot of core economic activity was slowing down. Almost no industries had significant increases in employment, meaning there wasn’t a ton of hiring. (One exception: superstores like Walmart and Target. Someone had to handle those last-minute hoarders.) Basically, by mid-March, businesses collectively understood that things were getting bad and acted accordingly.

Going forward, how alarmed should we be about these mounting job losses? It’s not entirely clear, and in the end, the answer is going to depend on how soon we can tame this virus, and how willing Congress is to do what is necessary to support families and businesses through this period of turmoil. For now, we want businesses to shut down to stop the spread of COVID-19, and Washington has provided generous unemployment benefits to help cushion the collective financial blow of mass unemployment. But the longer it takes to contain the pandemic, the more likely we are to see lasting economic damage. As time and lockdowns go on, more businesses will be likely to shutter permanently, meaning that workers won’t just be able to go back to their old jobs. (Even now, it’s not clear that Congress provided small businesses enough support to keep them from going bust en masse over the next couple of months.) There’s also a risk that we won’t be able to contain the virus thoroughly enough and companies will hold off on investing out of concern that there will be another outbreak. The economy could also start to suffer from the cascade effects of job losses, like declining home prices. We’re in the middle of a rapid economic decline. But there’s no guarantee of an equally rapid recovery.