When the economy shut down last spring, many workers thought they would be out of a job for a few weeks, maybe a couple of months.
Nine months later, many still aren’t back on the job.
The Labor Department’s monthly jobs report on Friday showed that nearly four million Americans had been out of work for more than six months, economists’ standard threshold for long-term unemployment. That was up by 27,000 from November, and roughly quadruple the number before the pandemic began.
Those figures almost certainly understate the scope of the problem. People who aren’t looking for work, whether because they don’t believe jobs are available or because they are caring for children or other family members, aren’t counted as unemployed.
When the data was collected in mid-December, many of the long-term jobless faced a frightening deadline: Federal programs that extended unemployment benefits beyond their standard six-month limit were set to expire at the end of the year. The aid package later passed by Congress and signed by President Trump extended the programs, but by less than three months.
Long-term joblessness was a defining feature of the last recession a decade ago, when millions eventually gave up looking for work, in some cases permanently. If that pattern repeats, it could have long-term consequences, particularly for people with disabilities, criminal records or other characteristics that make it hard to find jobs even in the best of times.
“These are the kinds of workers who are really only recruited and called upon in a very tight labor market, and it may take us a long time to get back there,” said Julia Pollak, a labor economist with the hiring site ZipRecruiter. “That is the worry, that there are these groups of people who will drop out now and who will only really find good opportunities again after a sustained and lengthy expansion.”