December’s jobs report and where we go from here


Last week, the Department of Labor released the final employment report of the Trump administration, and the news there, much like all the news these days, was not good.

For months, I’ve written that the key to getting the economy under control is getting the virus under control. Even for those who wanted to prioritize the economy over prevention of illness and deaths, blunting the transmission of COVID-19, even if at a steep cost, was always the smart bet for preserving the health of the workforce and getting to a reopening made sustainable by an effective vaccine.

However, we have been failing spectacularly at disease control. The CDC maintains a seven-day rolling average of cases and deaths. On November 30th, the US total was 93,221 infections and 10,086 deaths for the month. On December 28th, those numbers were 121,216 and 15,421, and they’ve continued to rise sharply since. This week, we’ve recorded multiple days with more than 4,000 deaths as we speed toward total losses of 400,000 or more by the time Joe Biden takes the oath of office.

The employment bill for allowing COVID to take deep root in our communities — as well failing to mask, social distance, and, where necessary, lock down — is coming due. The December unemployment rate was unchanged at 6.7 percent but, for the first time in months, showed a decline in employment of 140,000 jobs. This week, the US Department of Labor reported nearly 1 million new claims for unemployment benefits driven chiefly by losses in service and hospitality jobs where workers are exposed to both the virus and the economic shutdowns associated with COVID. One wonders how many times we will have to learn the lesson that COVID operates on a pay-me-now or pay-me-even-more-later basis.

As vaccinations continue to accelerate, we can hope that COVID will be largely in the rearview mirror by late-spring. In the meantime, the only way around this challenge is to accept masking, social distancing, and — on a spot-basis where illness is overloading our health workforce and hospitals — lockdowns that help reduce transmission, save lives, and reduce the now-emerging long-term impacts of COVID on human health.

We also need to begin planning for post-COVID workforce needs. Many employers have adapted to the COVID challenge with remote work. Others are increasing investments in automation that will necessarily mean permanent dislocations for workers and a surge in demand for retraining, up-skilling, and other employment services. We can’t afford to see a repeat of last spring where there were so many people trying to get online that unemployment systems broke under the strain.

Visiting fellow Mason Bishop, Emsi economist John Hawkins, and I published a report last summer recommending some innovative strategies for coping with COVID’s unique challenges, including expansive use of Personal Reemployment Accounts (PRA) and greater flexibility for using those resources for training and supportive services like childcare or transportation. We believe these approaches would be a significant enhancement over current policy as well as the incoming Biden administration’s economic recovery strategy.

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