Examining Washington’s Pandemic Employment Recovery

When the COVID-19 virus broke out in the United States in March of 2020, the country was put on standstill, with many “non-essential” workers immediately, or without much notice, having to work from home, or worse, restricted from receiving paid work altogether. In the months following the outbreak, many workers were laid off as the country fell into an economic downturn. Two years into the pandemic in the United States, employment is almost back to its 2019 level. As of [March 2022], 5 of the 15 super-sectors in the Washington metro area have grown to more than 100% of their employment share reported by the Bureau of Labor Statistics in March of 2020 while the remaining 10 account for 90% or above of their March 2020 share.

All sectors experienced the sharpest job decrease in April 2020 when the country was placed on lockdown. The sharpest employment drop-offs in that time period were Leisure/Hospitality (-50.2%), Retail Trade (-18.2%), Other Services (-14.7%), and Education/Health Services (-12.3%).

Over the following year, from March 2020 to March 2021, employment in most sectors declined by 8% or more, except for Leisure/Hospitality, which lost even more jobs over that year (-29.2%). Washington’s federal government employment base was not impeded, as it was the only sector to gain jobs over the first year of the pandemic, growing by 2.1%, March 2020 – March 2021.

Over the past year, from March 2021 to March 2022, most industries began to reverse course and report employment gains as the nation began to counter the pandemic through vaccinations. The Leisure/Hospitality industry began to experience its largest rebound as its employment grew by 27.1% over the past year.

While all sectors in the region were either less affected by the pandemic or experienced strong rebounds as the 2020 re-opening began, several have not only struggled to exceed their pre-pandemic performance but have also not rebounded from their pandemic dips. Specifically, the Financial Activities and State/Local Government sectors have lost jobs, not only when comparing March 2022 data to that of March 2020 (before mass job freezes took effect), but also when compared to April 2020 data, when most sectors experienced their sharpest plunges.

The State/Local Government and Financial Activities sectors shrank by 1.4% and 0.7% respectively between April 2020 and March 2022. However, it should be noted that these two sectors experienced the fewest job losses at the outbreak of the pandemic, but job growth has still has not increased over the two-year period.

In the near term, Washington metro area employment should continue to recuperate. However, the challenge for most sectors is no longer to make back most of the losses imposed by the pandemic, but to trend even higher than pre-pandemic employment and exceed 100% of March 2020 jobs. Unfortunately, optimism for such performance may be premature as the threat of another economic recession looms in the future.