Stuck on the Sidelines of The U.S. Job Market
Bloomberg Businessweek|October 18 - 25, 2021
Conversations with some of the 5 million out-of-work Americans shed light on why so many jobs are going begging
Cristina Lindblad

It’s a riddle dogging employers, the White House, and Wall Street economists alike: Where are the 5 million workers still missing from the U.S. job market—and when will they return?

Nationwide there’s more than one job opening for every American who wants to work. Yet September had the smallest monthly gain in payrolls this year, at 194,000, defying predictions by some politicians and economists that the expiration of emergency federal unemployment benefits would prod more people to find work. The contradictory data speak of a labor market that has been profoundly disrupted by the Covid-19 crisis—and may remain so for some time.

To find out why so many working-age people remain on the sidelines, Bloomberg News spoke at length with 10 of them. Several said they were reluctant to accept a part-time position when what they needed was a full-time one. Others are caring for kids or elderly family members, which limits their ability to work. Still others are in the middle of changing careers and need to skill up. Many are scared of contracting the coronavirus.

About 2.6 million people remain on state jobless benefit rolls. Others are tapping federal and local safety net programs, such as rental assistance. Some are relying on the kindness of relatives.

In the U.S. the pandemic abruptly severed the relationship between employers and employees. That’s in contrast with European countries, where millions of workers were furloughed rather than fired and therefore had a job to come back to. Rebuilding those connections will take time. “Having the same number of job openings and unemployed or underemployed workers does not imply that there will be a very simple direct match,” says Julia Pollak, chief economist at ZipRecruiter Inc., an online jobs marketplace.

Precious Briggs was laid off from her job as a server at a casino in Las Vegas in April of last year, at the start of the lockdowns. When restrictions lifted, she expected her former employer to summon her back, but the call never came.

While surveys show that many workers have abandoned the hospitality industry, Briggs, 32, says she loved her old job. “It was a dream of mine to leave my little Louisiana town and come here and cocktail,” she says. Other casinos have offered her part-time work at the state minimum wage of $9.75, well below the $14 an hour she used to make before tips. Her old job also came with health insurance and other benefits. “They’re hiring for positions that’s only one day a week, two days a week, and people cannot make it off of that,” she says.

Briggs, who exhausted all her unemployment and pandemic benefits, is getting by on rental assistance, Medicaid, and support from her family. As Vegas continues to reopen, she says she’s confident she will land a job.

There were 10.4 million open positions in the U.S. in August, according to the Department of Labor. And there’s no shortage of news stories quoting employers who say it’s impossible to find workers. Melisa Gillett’s experience shows the reality is more complicated.

For about three decades, Gillett worked from home transcribing medical documents from hospital visits until Covid restrictions sent demand for her services plummeting. The 57-year-old says she can’t find similar work that pays more than $9 an hour, which is about a third of what she used to make.

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