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Unemployment Is Spiking, But Some Companies Are Actually Hiring

Though initial data about the coronavirus’s effect on the United States job market is historically dire, not all sectors of the economy are hurting in equal measure. As a few of my colleagues wrote about last week, workers in the food and service industries (particularly in restaurants) are at a heightened economic risk during this crisis, since those businesses are inherently at odds with the type of social distancing edicts many states have issued. But at the same time, it stands to reason that some industries will actually be hiring more workers as the pandemic rages on.

The topline numbers, though, are undeniably bad. According to the Department of Labor, seasonally adjusted initial unemployment insurance claims leaped by 70,000 — to 281,000 total — for the week ending March 14. That number alone would be historic; only 13 weeks since 1967 have ever seen a week-over-week increase of 70,000 or more claims, and this is just the third time it’s happened since 1996. But the numbers that will come out this week could be unlike anything we’ve ever seen. Analysts are projecting that the total number of initial claims for the week ending on March 21 could rise above 2 million, an unthinkably high number.1 (Since 1967, no single week had ever seen 700,000 initial claims, according to the Federal Reserve.)

But again, it can be easy to forget that not every sector of the economy is affected the same way by this tidal wave of unemployment. To get an early sense of where any additional jobs might come from, FiveThirtyEight reached out to Carrie Engel of Indeed, a job search and posting website. Indeed’s analytics confirmed the overall direction of the federal job-market data above; through March 21, the year-over-year trend2 in job postings for the U.S. was down 7.2 percent. That could get worse before it gets better — the trend is down 18.2 percent from last year in Italy, a country that has instituted public lockdowns as its death toll rises. According to Indeed, U.S. postings in tourism and aviation are also significantly down from a year ago, reflecting other sectors of the economy that have been battered by travel bans and citizens generally staying inside.

But Indeed’s numbers show a 5 percent increase in job postings for loading and stocking workers — warehouse jobs necessary for online delivery companies such as Amazon, which announced last week that it was opening 100,000 new roles and doubling down on shipments for coronavirus-related supplies. Of course, these numbers might be complicated by news of a confirmed coronavirus case in one of Amazon’s warehouses and reports that package delivery workers are sick on the job.

Engel also pointed to another area where Indeed had noticed an upward trend of job postings: medical jobs. “Postings for jobs in the medical technician field, which includes titles such as medical assistant and laboratory technician, are growing faster this year, 7 percent above their trend at this point in 2019,” she wrote in an email.

She also noted that, before the crisis, Indeed’s data indicated fewer job seekers interested in medical positions than there had been just a few years earlier, particularly in metropolitan areas with a larger share of people aged 65 or older. Now, those health care workers are needed more than ever, which could lead to an increase in hiring.

What about job postings in other industries that are more conducive to working from home, such as technology fields that are digital-only? Although Indeed hadn’t taken a comprehensive survey yet, Engel said software development jobs are growing more slowly in 2020, with a posting trend about 2 percent lower than last year. So for now, there hasn’t been a particular spike in hiring for at least one of the areas that might be able to expand, free of social-distancing constraints.

One unknown factor in the job equation could also be applied over the weeks to come: the Defense Production Act (DPA). We’ve already seen some factories that make perfume and alcohol willingly convert production to health products currently in short supply, such as hand sanitizer. But the DPA gives the federal government wide latitude over private companies, including the ability to compel them to fill orders necessary for the national defense before completing their usual products. In theory, this would provide for mass industrial production of masks, gloves, ventilators and other medical equipment needed to manage the crisis. What is unclear is whether this ramp-up in production would also lead to the creation of more jobs or would simply reallocate existing workers to new tasks.

Because of the coronavirus, the overall job market looks bleak in a way we haven’t seen in decades, if ever. But as businesses adjust to the new reality of the pandemic, it’s worth keeping an eye on jobs numbers for sectors that either are directly involved in the fight against the virus or are poised to see more business with the public staying inside.

Footnotes

  1. That is, if the numbers are even made available: The New York Times reported that President Trump has asked states to delay releasing unemployment data, ostensibly to avoid spooking the reeling financial markets even further.

  2. Based on a seven-day rolling average, indexed to Jan. 1.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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