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Featured Article

June 2021

Unemployment rises in 2020, as the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic

Total civilian employment fell by 8.8 million over the year, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought the economic expansion to a sudden halt, taking a tremendous toll on the U.S. labor market. The unemployment rate increased in 2020, surging to 13.0 percent in the second quarter of the year before easing to 6.7 percent in the fourth quarter. Although some people were able to work at home, the numbers of unemployed on temporary layoff, those working part time for economic reasons, and those unemployed for 27 or more weeks increased sharply over the year.

A decade-long economic expansion ended early in 2020, as the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic and efforts to contain it led businesses to suspend operations or close, resulting in a record number of temporary layoffs. The pandemic also prevented many people from looking for work. For the first 2 months of 2020, the economic expansion continued, reaching 128 months, or 42 quarters. This was the longest economic expansion on record before millions of jobs were lost because of the pandemic.1

Total civilian employment, as measured by the Current Population Survey (CPS), fell by 21.0 million from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, while the unemployment rate more than tripled, from 3.6 percent to 13.0 percent. This was the highest quarterly average unemployment rate in the history of the CPS.2 (See the box that follows for more information about the CPS, as well as the Current Employment Statistics survey.)

The CPS and the CES

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) produces two monthly employment series obtained from two different surveys: the estimate of total nonfarm jobs, derived from the Current Employment Statistics (CES) survey, also called the establishment or payroll survey; and the estimate of total civilian employment, derived from the Current Population Survey (CPS), also called the household survey. The two surveys use different definitions of employment, as well as different survey and estimation methods. The CES survey is a survey of employers that provides a measure of the number of payroll jobs in nonfarm industries. The CPS is a survey of households that provides a measure of employed people ages 16 years and older in the civilian noninstitutional population.

Employment estimates from the CPS provide information about workers in both the agricultural and nonagricultural sectors and in all types of work arrangements: workers with wage and salary jobs (including employment in a private household), those who are self-employed, and those doing unpaid work for at least 15 hours per week in a business or farm operated by a family member. CES payroll employment estimates are restricted to nonagricultural wage and salary jobs and exclude private household workers. As a result, employment estimates from the CPS are higher than those from the CES survey. In the CPS, however, workers who hold multiple jobs (referred to as “multiple jobholders”) are counted only once, regardless of how many jobs these workers held during the survey reference period. By contrast, because the CES survey counts the number of jobs rather than the number of people, each nonfarm job is counted separately, even when two or more jobs are held by the same person.

The reference periods for the surveys also differ. In the CPS, the reference period is generally the calendar week that includes the 12th day of the month. In the CES survey, employers report the number of workers on their payrolls for the pay period that includes the 12th of the month. Because pay periods vary in length among employers and may be longer than 1 week, the CES employment estimates can reflect longer reference periods.

For more information on the two monthly employment measures, see “Employment from the BLS household and payroll surveys: summary of recent trends” (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, February 5, 2021), www.bls.gov/web/empsit/ces_cps_trends.htm.

However, late in the second quarter, the labor market began a slow recovery that continued for the rest of the year. The unemployment rate fell to 8.8 percent in the third quarter and to 6.7 percent in the fourth quarter. This was still 3.1 percentage points higher than a year earlier and reflected the 10.8 million people who were unemployed in the fourth quarter of 2020, which was 4.9 million more than at the end of 2019.3

Total employment, as measured by the CPS, rose by 8.6 million in the third quarter of 2020 and by 3.6 million in the fourth quarter. At the end of the year, total employment averaged 149.8 million, 8.8 million (or 5.5 percent) less than in the fourth quarter of 2019. The employment–population ratio (the percentage of the population ages 16 and older who are employed) averaged 57.4 percent in the fourth quarter, down by 3.6 percentage points over the year. The labor force participation rate (the percentage of the population ages 16 and older who are either employed or actively seeking employment) averaged 61.5 percent, down by 1.7 percentage points over the year.4

This article highlights important developments in key labor market measures from the CPS during 2020, both overall and for various demographic groups. New questions added to the CPS beginning in May 2020 provide data on the number of people who teleworked, were unable to work, or were unable to look for work because of the pandemic. The article also examines usual weekly earnings and labor force status flows in 2020, as well as the employment situations of veterans, people with a disability, and the foreign born.

Employment declined by a record amount in 2020

Although the labor market remained quite strong early in 2020, employment fell sharply in the spring with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Employment growth in the second half of the year led to a recovery of about half of these employment losses. Employment averaged 149.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, down 8.8 million from a year earlier.

Much of the employment decline early in the pandemic occurred among part-time workers. Part-time workers accounted for 29 percent of the employment decline from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, well above their prepandemic share of employment, at 17 percent. However, part-time workers made up 37 percent of the employment gain from the second quarter to the fourth quarter of 2020. In the fourth quarter of 2020, part-time employment was down by about 6 percent from a year earlier, matching the decline among full-time workers, which was also down by about 6 percent over the year.

The employment–population ratio decreased in 2020. The ratio dropped to 52.9 percent in the second quarter of 2020, which is the lowest quarterly average for this measure in the history of the CPS. The employment–population ratio improved in the second half of 2020, increasing to 57.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, but it was still 3.6 percentage points lower than it had been a year earlier. Following a similar pattern, the labor force participation rate fell sharply in 2020—at 60.8 percent in the second quarter, it was at its lowest level since 1973. In the second half of 2020, the rate showed some recovery, rising to 61.5 percent in the fourth quarter, but it remained 1.7 percentage points below the rate from a year earlier. (See table 1 and chart 1.)

Table 1. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population ages 16 years and older, by gender, race, and Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted, 2019–20 (levels in thousands)
CharacteristicFourth quarter, 20192020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020
First quarterSecond quarterThird quarterFourth quarter

Total, 16 years and older

Civilian labor force

164,435163,875158,158160,327160,607–3,828

Participation rate

63.263.160.861.561.5–1.7

Employed

158,544157,642137,565146,199149,769–8,775

Full-time workers

131,462130,160116,711121,664124,209–7,253

Part-time workers

27,01927,29921,02024,63425,476–1,543

Employment–population ratio 

61.060.752.956.157.4–3.6

Unemployed

5,8916,23220,59414,12810,8384,947

Unemployment rate

3.63.813.08.86.73.1

Men, 16 years and older

Civilian labor force

86,99686,66083,87985,00185,277–1,719

Participation rate

69.269.066.767.467.5–1.7

Employed

83,87383,35573,74877,71179,428–4,445

Employment–population ratio 

66.766.458.661.762.9–3.8

Unemployed

3,1233,30510,1327,2915,8492,726

Unemployment rate

3.63.812.18.66.93.3

Women, 16 years and older

Civilian labor force

77,43977,21474,27975,32675,330–2,109

Participation rate

57.757.655.356.055.9–1.8

Employed

74,67074,28763,81768,48870,341–4,329

Employment–population ratio 

55.655.447.550.952.2–3.4

Unemployed

2,7682,92710,4626,8384,9892,221

Unemployment rate

3.63.814.19.16.63.0

White

Civilian labor force

127,141126,647122,617124,154124,306–2,835

Participation rate

63.263.061.061.661.6–1.6

Employed

123,050122,416107,702114,408116,838–6,212

Employment–population ratio 

61.160.953.556.857.9–3.2

Unemployed

4,0914,23214,9159,7467,4683,377

Unemployment rate

3.23.312.27.86.02.8

Black or African American

Civilian labor force

20,78720,77019,78820,04020,114–673

Participation rate

62.662.559.460.060.1–2.5

Employed

19,57519,46216,57017,42318,034–1,541

Employment–population ratio 

59.058.649.852.253.9–5.1

Unemployed

1,2111,3083,2172,6172,080869

Unemployment rate

5.86.316.313.110.34.5

Asian

Civilian labor force

10,60510,44510,02910,51110,338–267

Participation rate

64.463.961.163.562.4–2.0

Employed

10,32210,1098,5849,4119,643–679

Employment–population ratio 

62.661.952.356.858.2–4.4

Unemployed

2833351,4451,099696413

Unemployment rate

2.73.214.410.56.74.0

Hispanic or Latino ethnicity

Civilian labor force

29,53829,61828,31928,77729,153–385

Participation rate

67.367.664.365.065.4–1.9

Employed

28,28628,16323,51725,55826,569–1,717

Employment–population ratio 

64.464.353.457.759.6–4.8

Unemployed

1,2511,4554,8023,2192,5841,333

Unemployment rate

4.24.917.011.28.94.7

Note: Employed full-time workers are people who usually work 35 hours or more per week. Employed part-time workers are people who usually work less than 35 hours per week. Seasonally adjusted data for full-time and part-time workers will not necessarily add to totals because of the independent seasonal adjustment of the series. Estimates for the above race groups (White, Black or African American, and Asian) do not sum to totals because data are not presented for all races. People whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race. Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

The unemployment rate peaked above levels seen in the Great Recession

The number of unemployed people was 10.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, an increase of 4.9 million from a year earlier. In the second quarter of 2020, after the onset of the pandemic, the number of unemployed averaged 20.6 million, much higher than the peak reached in the aftermath of the Great Recession, when unemployment hit 15.2 million in the fourth quarter of 2009.5 The unemployment rate also spiked in the second quarter of 2020 and, at 13.0 percent, was the highest quarterly average ever recorded in the history of the series, which goes back to 1948. (See the box that follows for more information about the effects of the pandemic on CPS estimates.) Despite rapid declines in the second half of the year, the unemployment rate averaged 6.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, which is nearly twice what it had been in the fourth quarter of 2019. (See chart 2.)

Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on CPS estimates

Misclassification of some people in the labor force

In 2020, many people were not able to work as businesses closed or reduced hours because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Depending on the responses to the CPS, some of these people may or may not have been classified as unemployed. People who did not work but said that they have a job are asked for the reason they did not work. Those who missed work because of vacation, illness, parental leave, or bad weather are classified as employed. In March 2020, some people who said they had jobs but did not work during the week prior to the survey cited the pandemic as the reason they did not work. The Census Bureau interviewers were given guidance that people who had jobs but did not work because they were under quarantine or self-isolating because of health concerns should be counted in the “own illness, injury, or medical problem” category. Those who were not ill or under quarantine and did not work “because of the coronavirus” should be classified as unemployed, on layoff (temporary or indefinite). (People on temporary layoff do not need to look for work to be classified as unemployed.)

Both BLS and the Census Bureau found that, despite this guidance, some people who were not working because of the coronavirus were recorded as having a job and not working for “other reasons.” Starting in March 2020, BLS began producing an estimate of what the unemployment rate would have been if those with a job but not at work for “other reasons” (over and above the typical level) had been counted among the unemployed on temporary layoff.

This estimate of misclassification requires some assumptions. First, BLS assumed that all of the increase in the number of employed people not at work for “other reasons” was solely due to misclassification. Second, BLS assumed that these people expected to be recalled and were available to return to work. These assumptions represent an upper bound and likely overstate the degree of misclassification. Business owners who do not have another job and are not at work because of pandemic-related closures or cutbacks are correctly recorded as employed and absent from work for “other reasons.”

After adjusting for misclassification using this methodology, BLS estimated that the unemployment rate for March 2020 would have been 5.3 percent, 0.9 percentage point higher than the official seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for that month. For April 2020, the same methodology showed that the unemployment rate would have been 19.5 percent, compared with the official seasonally adjusted rate of 14.7 percent. In response to the misclassification, the Census Bureau increased training for interviewers and reviewed responses for those who were recorded as employed and not at work for “other reasons.” Thus, misclassification was highest in the early months of the pandemic and was considerably lower later in the year. In December, the unemployment rate would have been 7.3 percent, compared with the official estimate of 6.7 percent. For more information about the misclassification, see “Impact of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on The Employment Situation for December 2020,” https://www.bls.gov/covid19/employment-situation-covid19-faq-december-2020.htm.

Response rates

The household survey is conducted by the Census Bureau and normally includes both in-person and telephone interviews, with the majority of interviews conducted by telephone. Households are in the CPS sample for a total of 8 months (4 months in a row, followed by an 8-month break, followed by another 4 months in the survey), meaning that interviewers attempt to interview someone in the household in each of those 8 months. Generally, households entering the sample for their first month are interviewed through a personal visit, and households in their fifth month also often receive a personal visit. Interviews for other months are generally conducted by telephone.

For the safety of both interviewers and respondents, in-person interviews were suspended on March 20, 2020. Additionally, the two Census Bureau call centers that assist with telephone interviewing were closed. Starting in July, interviewers resumed conducting some in-person interviews on a limited basis in certain areas of the country, and the call centers also resumed activity on a limited basis. Restrictions gradually eased, and by November, interviewers in nearly all areas of the country conducted in-person interviews, though only after first attempting to reach households by telephone.

The response rate for the household survey was 73 percent in March 2020, and it reached a low for the year of 65 percent in June. The response rate began to improve in July, and it was between 77 and 80 percent for September through December. For the 12 months ending in February 2020, the response rate averaged 83 percent. For CPS response rates by month, see https://data.bls.gov/timeseries/LNU09300000. Although the response rate was adversely affected by pandemic-related issues, BLS was still able to obtain estimates that met its standards for accuracy and reliability.

The sharpest rise in unemployment occurred in service occupations

In 2020, the unemployment rate increased for all five major occupational categories.6 (Data are annual averages.) The jobless rate for service occupations had the sharpest increase, rising by 8.6 percentage points over the year to reach 13.0 percent in 2020. Production, transportation, and material moving occupations had the second-largest increase, rising by 5.9 percentage points over the year to 10.2 percent in 2020. The pandemic and efforts to contain it had a substantial impact on these occupations. Within service occupations, food preparation and serving related occupations and personal care and service occupations were the most affected, with jobless rates that were nearly 4 times higher than they were in 2019. The jobless rates for natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations (8.9 percent); sales and office occupations (8.0 percent); and management, professional, and related occupations (4.5 percent) also rose sharply from 2019 to 2020. (See table 2.)

Table 2. Unemployment rates, by occupational group and gender, annual averages, not seasonally adjusted, 2019–20
Occupational groupTotalMenWomen
20192020Change, 2019 to 202020192020Change, 2019 to 202020192020Change, 2019 to 2020

Management, professional, and related occupations

2.04.52.51.84.22.42.14.92.8

Management, business, and financial operations occupations

1.84.12.31.73.82.12.04.42.4

Professional and related occupations

2.14.92.82.04.62.62.25.12.9

Service occupations

4.413.08.64.812.67.84.213.39.1

Health care support occupations

3.17.34.22.87.54.73.27.34.1

Protective service occupations

2.95.12.22.33.91.64.88.73.9

Food preparation and serving related occupations

5.519.614.16.120.814.75.018.513.5

Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations

5.110.95.85.69.43.84.413.18.7

Personal care and service occupations

3.916.012.14.417.513.13.715.511.8

Sales and office occupations

3.78.04.33.57.23.73.88.54.7

Sales and related occupations

3.88.85.02.96.94.04.710.86.1

Office and administrative support occupations

3.67.33.74.37.93.63.37.13.8

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations

4.78.94.24.48.64.29.012.53.5

Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations

9.610.30.77.78.40.714.815.70.9

Construction and extraction occupations

5.210.14.95.110.04.96.110.64.5

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

2.66.43.82.56.23.73.710.97.2

Production, transportation, and material moving occupations

4.310.25.94.29.85.64.911.66.7

Production occupations

3.99.05.13.78.54.84.510.05.5

Transportation and material moving occupations

4.711.16.44.510.66.15.413.27.8

Note: The unemployed are classified by occupation according to their last job, which may or may not be similar to the job they are currently looking for. Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data. Effective with January 2020 data, occupations reflect the introduction of the 2018 Census occupational classification system into the Current Population Survey, or household survey. This classification system is derived from the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC). No historical data have been revised. Data for 2020 are not strictly comparable with earlier years.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

Unemployment rates rose more for women than for men in four of the five major occupational categories in 2020. The unemployment rate for women in service occupations increased by 9.1 percentage points over the year, reaching 13.3 percent, compared with an increase of 7.8 percentage points in the rate for men, whose rate rose to 12.6 percent in 2020. Within this occupational group, women accounted for 57.0 percent of employment in 2020. (See table 3.) (These data are annual averages.) Over the same period, in production, transportation, and material moving occupations, the jobless rate increased by 6.7 percentage points for women and by 5.6 percentage points for men, reaching 11.6 percent and 9.8 percent, respectively. In sales and office occupations, the unemployment rate increased by 4.7 percentage points for women and 3.7 percentage points for men, to 8.5 percent and 7.2 percent, respectively. In management, professional, and related occupations, the unemployment rate increased by 2.8 percentage points for women and 2.4 percentage points for men, rising to 4.9 percent for women and 4.2 percent for men. Lastly, for natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations, the unemployment rate increased more for men (4.2 percentage points, to 8.6 percent) than for women (3.5 percentage points, to 12.5 percent).

Women were disproportionately affected by the pandemic-related recession, especially in the early stages

From the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, the number of employed women decreased by 14.5 percent, compared with a 12.1-percent decrease for men. Over the same period, the unemployment rate for women increased by 10.5 percentage points, to 14.1 percent, while the rate for men rose by 8.5 percentage points, to 12.1 percent. From the second quarter to the fourth quarter of 2020, however, the number of employed women increased by 10.2 percent, compared with a 7.7-percent increase in the number of employed men. The unemployment rate for women decreased by 7.5 percentage points, compared with a 5.2-percentage-point decrease for men. (See table 1.)

As these measures suggest, the employment situation deteriorated considerably more for women than for men during the early part of the pandemic—from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020; it then improved somewhat more for women than for men between the second quarter and the end of the year. This pattern reflects employment changes in 2020 that were particularly acute for people in food services and serving related occupations, an occupational group in which women make up slightly more than half of employment, and personal care and service occupations, in which women represented more than three-fourths of employment. (See table 3.) Women are also more likely than men to usually work part time—that is, less than 35 hours per week—and part-time employment declined more sharply than full-time employment in the early stages of the pandemic. Women accounted for about three-fifths of part-time workers in 2020.

 Table 3. Employed people, by occupational group, gender, race, Hispanic or Latino ethnicity, and age, annual averages, not seasonally adjusted, 2020
Occupational groupTotal employed (in thousands)Percent of total employed
WomenWhiteBlack or African AmericanAsianHispanic or LatinoAges 16 to 24 yearsAges 25 to 54 yearsAges 55 years and older

Total, 16 years and older

147,79546.878.012.16.417.611.664.523.9

Management, professional, and related occupations

63,64451.778.79.78.610.45.669.924.6

Management, business, and financial operations occupations

27,14344.681.78.86.710.93.868.627.6

Management occupations

18,56440.483.48.05.810.73.167.529.4

Professional and related occupations

36,50257.076.510.510.110.16.970.822.3

Service occupations

22,85357.072.917.05.625.021.357.920.8

Healthcare support occupations

4,79085.364.125.36.220.214.961.423.7

Protective service occupations

3,02423.674.519.42.515.910.270.219.6

Food preparation and serving related occupations

6,55654.474.813.96.427.339.447.113.4

Building and grounds cleaning and maintenance occupations

5,08440.378.214.23.137.910.860.528.6

Personal care and service occupations

3,39977.072.813.210.116.120.959.020.2

Sales and office occupations

29,72661.378.712.55.117.315.658.625.8

Sales and related occupations

14,16848.780.210.65.517.118.956.125.0

Office and administrative support occupations

15,55872.777.414.34.717.412.660.926.4

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations

13,3575.686.77.52.131.111.367.321.5

Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations

1,04524.190.04.31.643.018.557.324.3

Construction and extraction occupations

7,7104.087.87.01.635.711.268.919.9

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

4,6024.184.09.13.120.89.766.723.5

Production, transportation, and material moving occupations

18,21523.774.616.74.823.814.561.623.9

Production occupations

7,59028.377.813.15.623.610.865.024.1

Transportation and material moving occupations

10,62520.572.319.44.223.917.159.123.8

Note: Estimates for the above race groups (White, Black or African American, and Asian) do not sum to totals because data are not presented for all races. People whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race. Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data. Effective with January 2020 data, occupations reflect the introduction of the 2018 Census occupational classification system, derived from the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC). No historical data have been revised. Data for 2020 are not strictly comparable with earlier years.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

At the end of 2020, labor market conditions for both women and men were weaker than they were a year earlier. The unemployment rate for women was 6.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, up 3.0 percentage points from the fourth quarter of 2019; the rate for men was up 3.3 percentage points over this period, averaging 6.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. Employment was down 5.8 percent for women between the fourth quarter of 2019 and the fourth quarter of 2020, compared with a decline of 5.3 percent for men. The labor force participation rate also was down more for women than for men over the year, with declines of 1.8 percentage points and 1.7 percentage points, respectively; the fourth-quarter rate was 55.9 percent for women and 67.5 percent for men. (See table 1.)

Looking at a broader array of economic indicators sheds even more light on the labor market difficulties that women encountered in 2020. For example, according to data from the American Time Use Survey, women are more likely than men to provide childcare and to perform household activities such as housework, food preparation and cleanup, and household management on a given day; women are also more likely than men to be unpaid eldercare providers.7 Mothers of school-age children with no other working-age adults in the home suffered disproportionate declines in employment.8 Any adverse impact on their employment situation, especially when compounded by the shift of many schools to distance learning during the pandemic and the temporary closure of many childcare facilities, meant that many women were forced to juggle an unprecedented array of pandemic-related challenges.

Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics were more adversely affected than Whites by the pandemic-induced recession

In 2020, employment fell sharply for all race and ethnicity groups, as evidenced by declines in the employment–population ratios for Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics.9 Improvements in the second half of the year were not substantial enough to make up for the steep drops that occurred in the second quarter. However, some groups were affected more than others. Although the ratio for Whites decreased by 3.2 percentage points over the year, to 57.9 percent, the declines in the employment–population ratios for Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians were more pronounced. The ratio for Blacks decreased to 53.9 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, a loss of 5.1 percentage points over the year. The employment–population ratios for Hispanics and Asians also fell sharply during 2020, with the ratio for Hispanics decreasing by 4.8 percentage points, to 59.6 percent, and the ratio for Asians decreasing by 4.4 percentage points, to 58.2 percent. (See table 1.)

Similarly, the labor force participation rates decreased over the year for Whites, Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. Higher participation in the second half of the year fell short of making up for the steep drops in the second quarter. The participation rate for Whites decreased by 1.6 percentage points over the year, to 61.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, but declines in labor force participation among the other major race and ethnicity groups were larger. The rate for Blacks decreased by 2.5 percentage points over the year, to 60.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. The rate for Asians decreased by 2.0 percentage points, to 62.4 percent. The rate for Hispanics decreased by 1.9 percentage points, to 65.4 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. (See table 1.)

Among the major race and ethnicity groups, jobless rates at the end of 2020 were much higher than in the fourth quarter of 2019. For each of the groups, some improvement in the second half of the year was not sufficient to bring the rates back to their prepandemic levels. The unemployment rate for Blacks, at 10.3 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, increased by 4.5 percentage points over the year. The jobless rate for Asians more than doubled, increasing by 4.0 percentage points over the year, to 6.7 percent. The rate for Hispanics increased by 4.7 percentage points, to 8.9 percent. The unemployment rate for Whites, at 6.0 percent, increased by 2.8 percentage points over the year. (See table 1 and chart 3.)

Roughly 1 in 4 young workers were unemployed in the second quarter of 2020

In terms of the increase in the unemployment rate, the labor market disruption in the early months of the pandemic was greatest among younger workers. For people ages 16 to 24, for example, the unemployment rate jumped to 24.2 percent in the second quarter of 2020, an increase of 15.9 percentage points from the fourth quarter of 2019. By the fourth quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for people ages 16 to 24 was back down to 12.0 percent, albeit still 3.7 percentage points higher than it was at the end of 2019. This is largely a reflection of younger workers being more likely than older workers to be employed in food preparation and serving related occupations, an occupational group hit particularly hard at the onset of the pandemic. Younger workers are also more likely to be employed part time and, as previously mentioned, employment declined more sharply among part-time workers in the early stages of the recession. (See table 4.)

Employment for people ages 16 to 24 fell by 4.9 million, or 25.1 percent, from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020. Employment for this age group rebounded by 3.7 million from the second quarter to the fourth quarter of 2020, but the level was still down by 1.1 million over the year. The employment–population ratio was 48.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, 2.7 percentage points lower than it was a year earlier. Much of the employment decline occurred among those ages 20 to 24. (See table 4.)

The unemployment rate for people in the prime working age of 25 to 54 was 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, up 3.1 percentage points over the year. The unemployment rate increased for both prime-working-age women and men. In the fourth quarter, the unemployment rate was 6.0 percent for women and 6.2 percent for men, with increases over the year of 2.8 percentage points and 3.2 percentage points, respectively. (See table 4.)

Table 4. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population ages 16 years and older, by age and gender, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted, 2019-20 (levels in thousands)
CharacteristicFourth quarter, 20192020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020
First quarterSecond quarterThird quarterFourth quarter

Total, 16 to 24 years

Civilian labor force

21,13520,97219,16219,95820,736–399

Participation rate

56.055.951.153.355.3-0.7

Employed

19,38219,14214,52216,85418,250–1,132

Employment–population ratio 

51.451.038.745.048.7–2.7

Unemployed

1,7541,8314,6393,1052,486732

Unemployment rate

8.38.724.215.612.03.7

Total, 16 to 19 years

Civilian labor force

5,9685,9645,3565,6365,925–43

Participation rate

35.835.932.334.135.80.0

Employed

5,2105,2063,8534,6655,056–154

Employment–population ratio 

31.231.323.328.230.6–0.6

Unemployed

7587591,504970869111

Unemployment rate

12.712.728.117.214.72.0

Total, 20 to 24 years

Civilian labor force

15,16715,00813,80614,32314,811–356

Participation rate

72.171.866.068.570.8–1.3

Employed

14,17213,93610,67012,18813,194–978

Employment–population ratio 

67.466.751.058.363.1–4.3

Unemployed

9961,0723,1362,1341,617621

Unemployment rate

6.67.122.714.910.94.3

Total, 25 to 54 years

Civilian labor force

104,727104,275101,632102,387102,223–2504

Participation rate

82.982.880.681.281.0–1.9

Employed

101,533100,93890,10294,29495,987–5,546

Employment–population ratio 

80.380.171.574.876.1–4.2

Unemployed

3,1943,33711,5308,0926,2363,042

Unemployment rate

3.03.211.37.96.13.1

Men, 25 to 54 years

Civilian labor force

55,62855,37854,19254,60054,528–1,100

Participation rate

89.289.187.187.787.6–1.6

Employed

53,98353,62548,40650,38751,137–2,846

Employment–population ratio 

86.586.377.881.082.1–4.4

Unemployed

1,6451,7535,7864,2133,3911,746

Unemployment rate

3.03.210.77.76.23.2

Women, 25 to 54 years

Civilian labor force

49,09948,89747,44047,78647,695–1,404

Participation rate

76.776.674.374.874.7–2.0

Employed

47,55047,31341,69643,90744,850–2,700

Employment–population ratio 

74.374.265.368.870.2–4.1

Unemployed

1,5481,5845,7443,8792,8451,297

Unemployment rate

3.23.212.18.16.02.8

Total, 55 years and older

Civilian labor force

38,67638,54337,29438,03737,744–932

Participation rate

40.340.138.639.238.7–1.6

Employed

37,67637,45332,93535,12635,568–2,108

Employment–population ratio 

39.338.934.136.236.5–2.8

Unemployed

1,0001,0914,3592,9112,1761,176

Unemployment rate

2.62.811.77.75.83.2

Men, 55 years and older

Civilian labor force

20,63520,61319,96320,25320,184–451

Participation rate

46.446.244.645.044.7–1.7

Employed

20,11919,99117,89218,81619,047–1,072

Employment–population ratio 

45.344.840.041.842.1–3.2

Unemployed

5166222,0711,4371,138622

Unemployment rate

2.53.010.47.15.63.1

Women, 55 years and older

Civilian labor force

18,03717,93717,33017,78017,557–480

Participation rate

35.034.833.534.233.6–1.4

Employed

17,55717,46215,04316,31016,521–1,036

Employment–population ratio 

34.133.929.031.431.6–2.5

Unemployed

4814752,2871,4711,035554

Unemployment rate

2.72.613.28.35.93.2

Note: Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

Among people ages 25 to 54, the number of employed fell by 11.4 million from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the second quarter of 2020, but it increased by 5.9 million from the second quarter to the fourth quarter of 2020. The employment–population ratio fell by 4.2 percentage points over the year, averaging 76.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. Among workers ages 55 and older, the unemployment rate, at 5.8 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, increased by 3.2 percentage points over the year. The jobless rates for men and women in this age group showed similar increases, 3.1 percentage points and 3.2 percentage points, respectively, over the year. The employment–population ratio for older workers, at 36.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, declined by 2.8 percentage points over the year.10 This ratio decreased by 3.2 percentage points over the year for men, to 42.1 percent, and by 2.5 percentage points for women, to 31.6 percent. (See table 4.)

The unemployment rate rose markedly for those with less education

Among workers ages 25 and older, jobless rates across all education levels spiked to their highest point ever following the onset of the pandemic in the second quarter of 2020 (these data series began in 1992).11 Unemployment rates for people with less than a high school diploma and for high school graduates reached 19.0 percent and 14.9 percent, respectively, in the second quarter of 2020. For those with some college or an associate degree, and those with a bachelor’s degree and higher, jobless rates in the second quarter were 13.0 percent and 7.5 percent, respectively. (See table 5.)

Although these measures improved after the second quarter, they remained about twice as high in the fourth quarter of 2020, as compared with a year earlier. The jobless rate for people with less than a high school diploma was 9.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, 4.1 percentage points higher than a year earlier. The unemployment rate for high school graduates with no college degree (7.9 percent) and for those with some college or an associate degree (6.4 percent) increased by a similar amount over the year (by 4.2 percentage points and 3.5 percentage points, respectively). The rate for those with a bachelor’s degree and higher increased by 2.1 percentage points over the year, reaching 4.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. As has historically been the case, jobless rates for those with higher levels of education remained well below the rates for those with less formal education. (See table 5 and chart 4.)

Table 5. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population ages 25 years and older, by educational attainment, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted, 2019–20 (levels in thousands)
CharacteristicFourth quarter, 20192020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020
First quarterSecond quarterThird quarterFourth quarter

Less than a high school diploma

Civilian labor force

9,7269,5138,4588,5439,197–529

Participation rate

46.346.442.944.545.6–0.7

Employed

9,1948,9346,8497,4548,310–884

Employment–population ratio 

43.843.534.738.841.2–2.6

Unemployed

5335801,6091,089887354

Unemployment rate

5.56.119.012.79.64.1

High school graduates, no college

Civilian labor force

36,16435,82133,51934,43435,189–975

Participation rate

58.058.054.955.255.6–2.4

Employed

34,81434,44928,51731,04232,413–2,401

Employment–population ratio 

55.955.846.749.851.2–4.7

Unemployed

1,3511,3725,0023,3922,7761,425

Unemployment rate

3.73.814.99.97.94.2

Some college or associate degree

Civilian labor force

37,48337,23636,29836,37635,694–1,789

Participation rate

64.764.563.263.862.4–2.3

Employed

36,39236,06631,57833,22633,408–2,984

Employment–population ratio 

62.862.555.058.358.4–4.4

Unemployed

1,0901,1704,7203,1502,2851,195

Unemployment rate

2.93.113.08.76.43.5

Bachelor's degree and higher

Civilian labor force

59,85660,21160,78261,16259,696–160

Participation rate

73.873.372.172.372.0–1.8

Employed

58,66658,93656,19657,75357,267–1,399

Employment–population ratio 

72.471.866.668.369.1–3.3

Unemployed

1,1901,2764,5873,4092,4291,239

Unemployment rate

2.02.17.55.64.12.1

Note: Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

The number of unemployed on temporary layoff surged to unprecedented levels

Unemployed people are grouped by their reasons for unemployment. People are unemployed because they either (1) were on temporary layoff, permanently lost their job, or completed a temporary job (referred to as job losers); (2) voluntarily left their job (job leavers); (3) reentered the labor force (reentrants); or (4) entered the labor force for the first time (new entrants).

The number of job losers rose to an unprecedented level during the pandemic. By comparison, following the Great Recession, the number of unemployed job losers peaked at 9.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2009. It then steadily declined throughout the record-long economic expansion, bottoming out at 2.7 million in the fourth quarter of 2019. By the second quarter of 2020, however, the number of unemployed people who lost their job surged to 17.7 million, the highest quarterly average in the history of the data series. Virtually all of this increase consisted of people on temporary layoff, rising from 799,000 in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 14.7 million in the second quarter of 2020, the highest level on record.12 (See table 6.)

The number of unemployed job losers declined after the second quarter of 2020, as the number of people on temporary layoff declined sharply. In the fourth quarter of 2020, out of the 7.5 million unemployed people who had lost their job, about 40 percent were on temporary layoff, down from 83 percent in the second quarter. Although the number of people on temporary layoff decreased from the second quarter of 2020 to the fourth quarter, the number of people not on temporary layoff (permanent job losers, and those who completed temporary jobs) increased in 2020. The number of people who permanently lost their jobs, at 3.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, increased by 2.2 million over the year.

The number of unemployed reentrants—people who previously worked but had been out of the labor force before they began their job search—increased by 357,000 over the year, to 2.1 million in the fourth quarter. The number of job leavers (people who voluntarily left their job) edged down by 73,000 over the year, reaching 735,000 in the fourth quarter of 2020. The number of new entrants, at 529,000 in the fourth quarter of 2020, was little changed from the prior year. (See table 6 and chart 5.)

 Table 6. Unemployed people, by reason and duration of unemployment, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted, 2019–20 (levels in thousands)
Reason and durationFourth quarter, 20192020Change,
fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020
First quarterSecond quarterThird quarterFourth quarter

Reason for unemployment

Job losers and people who completed temporary jobs

2,7423,15317,73810,7267,4544,712

On temporary layoff

7991,14614,6506,6763,0112,212

Not on temporary layoff

1,9432,0073,0884,0504,4432,500

Permanent job losers

1,3221,3732,3973,2773,5692,247

people who completed temporary jobs

621634691773874253

Job leavers

808770567661735–73

Reentrants

1,7211,8001,8182,1802,078357

New entrants

587533506532529–58

Percent distribution

Job losers and people who completed temporary jobs

46.850.486.076.169.022.2

On temporary layoff

13.618.371.047.327.914.3

Not on temporary layoff

33.232.115.028.741.28.0

Job leavers

13.812.32.74.76.8–7.0

Reentrants

29.428.88.815.519.2–10.2

New entrants

10.08.52.53.84.9–5.1

Duration of unemployment

Less than 5 weeks

2,0302,5267,0032,6842,618588

5 to 14 weeks

1,7351,76311,1143,7142,323588

15 weeks or longer

2,0811,9812,4117,8135,8393,758

15 to 26 weeks

8768271,2225,9862,0331,157

27 weeks or longer

1,2051,1541,1881,8273,8072,602

Average (mean) duration in weeks

20.819.910.619.422.61.8

Median duration, in weeks

9.28.17.616.518.29.0

Percent distribution

Less than 5 weeks

34.740.334.118.924.3–10.4

5 to 14 weeks

29.728.154.126.121.5-8.2

15 weeks or longer

35.631.611.755.054.218.6

15 to 26 weeks

15.013.26.042.118.93.9

27 weeks or longer

20.618.45.812.935.314.7

Note: Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

The duration of unemployment changed markedly after the initial pandemic shock

The evolving effects of the pandemic on the labor market in 2020 were also evident in the changing estimates of the duration of unemployment during the year. For instance, as unemployment surged following the onset of the pandemic, there was an increase in the number of people who were newly unemployed—that is, those unemployed for less than 5 weeks. Those who were unemployed for less than 5 weeks accounted for 34.7 percent of the total unemployed in the last quarter of 2019; that figure increased to 40.3 percent in the first quarter of 2020, when the effects of the pandemic first became noticeable. After peaking early in the second quarter, the share of the unemployed who were unemployed for less than 5 weeks began to decrease and the number of those unemployed for 5 to 14 weeks began to increase.

The share of those unemployed for 5 to 14 weeks rose from 29.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 54.1 percent in the second quarter of 2020, before it began to decline. As the year progressed, the initial surge in unemployment continued to move through the longer duration categories. By the third quarter of 2020, the number of people who were unemployed for 15 to 26 weeks represented the largest share of the total unemployed, at 42.1 percent.

Because of the large and rapid influx of newly unemployed people, the long-term unemployed—those looking for work for 27 weeks or more—initially accounted for a declining share of the total unemployed, representing only 5.8 percent of the total unemployed in the second quarter of 2020, the smallest share since 1970.13 However, by the fourth quarter of 2020, the number of people who were long-term unemployed had increased to 3.8 million, which was more than triple the prepandemic level of 1.2 million and represented 35.3 percent of the total unemployed. (See chart 6.)

The number of involuntary part-time workers increased over the year

People who work part time for economic reasons, often referred to as involuntary part-time workers, worked less than 35 hours per week but would have preferred full-time employment.14 They mainly worked a reduced number of hours because of unfavorable business conditions (slack work) or their inability to find full-time work. Involuntary part-time workers are often described as underemployed. (See chart 7.)

The number of involuntary part-time workers increased by 2.2 million over the year, averaging 6.5 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, which represented 4.3 percent of total employment, compared with 2.7 percent of employment the previous year. This measure of the underemployed reached an all-time high of 10.2 million in the second quarter of 2020, with essentially all of the increase occurring among those working part time because of slack work. The number of people who could only find part-time work declined by 156,000 over the year, dropping to 1.1 million in 2020.

Before the pandemic, men and women each accounted for about half of involuntary part-time workers, but men made up slightly more than half of the underemployed at the end of 2020. The number of men who worked part time for economic reasons increased by 1.2 million, or 57 percent, from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2020, ending the year at 3.3 million. Over the same period, the number of women working part time for economic reasons increased by 1.0 million, or 50 percent, to 3.0 million. (These data are not seasonally adjusted.)

The number of self-employed workers declined in 2020

The number of self-employed workers whose businesses were unincorporated fell from 9.6 million in the fourth quarter of 2019 to 8.6 million in the second quarter of 2020, a 10-percent decline. By the fourth quarter of 2020, employment for this group, at 9.5 million, had nearly recovered to the prepandemic level. In the fourth quarter of 2020, there were 6.1 million self-employed workers whose businesses were incorporated (data are not seasonally adjusted), 267,000 less than a year earlier.

The unemployment rate for veterans nearly doubled over the year

There were 18.3 million veterans ages 18 and older in the civilian noninstitutional population in the fourth quarter of 2020. Veterans who served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam era account for the largest share of the veteran population, at 6.7 million, followed by veterans who served during Gulf War era II (4.5 million) and Gulf War era I (3.1 million). Four million veterans served on active duty during “other service periods,” mainly between the Korean War and the Vietnam era and between the Vietnam era and Gulf War era II.15 Among veterans, women accounted for 10 percent of the total veteran population in the fourth quarter of 2020.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, the unemployment rate for veterans was 5.7 percent (not seasonally adjusted), up by 2.6 percentage points over the year. The unemployment rate for nonveterans, at 6.5 percent in the fourth quarter, increased by 3.3 percentage points over the year. Among the youngest veterans, the jobless rate for Gulf War-era II veterans (those who served from September 2001 to the present), at 6.1 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, increased by 2.3 percentage points from a year earlier. The unemployment rate for male veterans, at 5.9 percent, increased by 3.0 percentage points over the year, while the jobless rate for female veterans, at 4.7 percent, changed little over the same period. (See table 7.)

Table 7. Employment status of people ages 18 years and older, by veteran status, period of service, and gender, quarterly averages, not seasonally adjusted, 2019–20 (levels in thousands)
Employment status, veteran status, and period of serviceTotalMenWomen
Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020

Veterans, 18 years and older

Civilian labor force

9,1878,721–4668,0947,607–4871,0921,11422

Participation rate

49.247.6–1.648.246.4–1.857.858.40.6

Employed

8,9058,222–6837,8597,161–6981,0461,06216

Employment–population ratio 

47.744.9–2.846.843.6–3.255.355.60.3

Unemployed

28249921723644621046526

Unemployment rate

3.15.72.62.95.93.04.24.70.5

Gulf War-era II veterans

Civilian labor force

3,4643,502382,9422,9601852254119

Participation rate

79.277.4–1.881.779.2–2.567.568.40.9

Employed

3,3333,289–442,8472,773–7448651630

Employment–population ratio 

76.272.7–3.579.174.2–4.962.965.22.3

Unemployed

1302138395187923526–9

Unemployment rate

3.86.12.33.26.33.16.84.7–2.1

Gulf War-era I veterans

Civilian labor force

2,3052,257–481,9841,933–513213243

Participation rate

74.773.2–1.575.874.4–1.468.767.0–1.7

Employed

2,2412,148–931,9251,837–88316310–6

Employment–population ratio 

72.769.7–3.073.670.7–2.967.664.1–3.5

Unemployed

64109455995365149

Unemployment rate

2.84.82.03.04.91.91.64.32.7

World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam-era veterans

Civilian labor force

1,4591,167–2921,4121,135–2774733–14

Participation rate

20.717.5–3.220.717.6–3.119.214.0–5.2

Employed

1,4171,111–3061,3701,080–2904731–16

Employment–population ratio 

20.116.6–3.520.116.8–3.319.113.5–5.6

Unemployed

425614425513011

Unemployment rate

2.94.81.92.94.81.9

Veterans of other service periods

Civilian labor force

1,9591,795–1641,7571,579–17820221614

Participation rate

47.144.5–2.646.843.5–3.349.954.04.1

Employed

1,9141,675–2391,7171,470–2471972047

Employment–population ratio 

46.041.5–4.545.740.5–5.248.651.12.5

Unemployed

461217541109685127

Unemployment rate

2.36.74.42.36.94.62.55.42.9

Nonveterans, 18 years and older

Civilian labor force

153,028149,779–3,24977,65676,442–1,21475,37173,337–2,034

Participation rate

65.964.0–1.974.372.5–1.858.957.1–1.8

Employed

148,080140,099–7,98175,08571,356–3,72972,99568,743–4,252

Employment–population ratio 

63.759.9–3.871.967.7–4.257.153.5–3.6

Unemployed

4,9489,6804,7322,5715,0862,5152,3774,5942,217

Unemployment rate

3.26.53.33.36.73.43.26.33.1

Note: Veterans are men and women who previously served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and were not on active duty at the time of the survey. Nonveterans never served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces. Veterans could have served anywhere in the world during these periods of service: Gulf War era II (September 2001–present), Gulf War era I (August 1990–August 2001), Vietnam era (August 1964–April 1975), Korean War (July 1950–January 1955), World War II (December 1941–December 1946), and other service periods (all other periods). Veterans are only counted in one period of service: their most recent wartime period. Veterans who served in both a wartime period and any other service period are classified in the wartime period. Dash indicates no data available, data that do not meet publication criteria, or a base that is less than 60,000.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

In the fourth quarter of 2020, the labor force participation rate for veterans was 47.6 percent, while the rate for nonveterans was 64.0 percent. The participation rate for veterans declined by 1.6 percentage points over the year, and the rate for nonveterans declined by 1.9 percentage points over the same period. Labor force participation rates—for both veterans and nonveterans—tend to be lower for older people than they are for people of prime working age. For instance, the labor force participation rate for those who served during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam era—who are all over the age of 60 and accounted for 36 percent of the veteran population—was 17.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, down by 3.2 percentage points over the year. By contrast, Gulf War-era II veterans—who tend to be younger—had a much higher participation rate, 77.4 percent, which was little changed from a year earlier. (See table 7.)

The unemployment rate for people with a disability increased to a double-digit level

Many people experienced challenging labor market conditions in 2020, including those with a disability. The unemployment rate for people with a disability, at 11.5 percent in the last quarter of 2020, remained much higher than the rate for people without a disability (6.3 percent). (Data are not seasonally adjusted.) The rate for those with a disability increased by 4.6 percentage points in 2020, compared with an increase of 3.1 percentage points for those without a disability.

Among the 29.9 million people ages 16 years and older with a disability in the fourth quarter of 2020, 6.1 million, or 20.3 percent, participated in the labor force. By contrast, the participation rate for people without disability was 66.8 percent. The lower rate for people with a disability reflects, in part, the older age profile of those with a disability; older people, regardless of disability status, are less likely to be in the labor force. About half of all people with a disability were ages 65 and over, nearly 3 times the share of those with no disability. (See table 8.)

Table 8. Employment status of the civilian noninstitutional population, by gender, age, and disability status, quarterly averages, not seasonally adjusted, 2019–20
Employment status, gender, and agePeople with a disabilityPeople with no disability
Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020

Total, 16 years and older

Civilian labor force

6,2566,078–178158,067154,434–3,633

Participation rate

20.620.3–0.368.866.8–2.0

Employed

5,8245,381–443153,015144,702–8,313

Employment–population ratio 

19.218.0–1.266.662.6–4.0

Unemployed

4326972655,0529,7324,680

Unemployment rate

6.911.54.63.26.33.1

Men, 16 to 64 years

Civilian labor force

2,7302,651–7977,95876,445–1,513

Participation rate

36.035.0–1.082.881.5–1.3

Employed

2,5252,342–18375,38271,392–3,990

Employment–population ratio 

33.330.9–2.480.176.1–4.0

Unemployed

2053101052,5765,0532,477

Unemployment rate

7.511.74.23.36.63.3

Women, 16 to 64 years

Civilian labor force

2,3062,3443870,32268,389–1,933

Participation rate

30.831.70.972.470.5–1.9

Employed

2,1252,037–8868,09064,221–3,869

Employment–population ratio 

28.427.5–0.970.166.2–3.9

Unemployed

1813071262,2324,1681,936

Unemployment rate

7.913.15.23.26.12.9

Total, 65 years and older

Civilian labor force

1,2191,083–1369,7879,600–187

Participation rate

8.07.3–0.725.623.7–1.9

Employed

1,1731,003–1709,5439,089–454

Employment–population ratio 

7.76.7–1.024.922.5–2.4

Unemployed

468034244511267

Unemployment rate

3.87.43.62.55.32.8

Note: A person with a disability has at least one of the following conditions: is deaf or has serious difficulty hearing; is blind or has serious difficulty seeing even when wearing glasses; has serious difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition; has serious difficulty walking or climbing stairs; has difficulty dressing or bathing; or has difficulty doing errands alone such as visiting a doctor's office or shopping because of a physical, mental, or emotional condition. Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

The foreign-born unemployment rate increased more than the native-born rate in 2020

The foreign born accounted for 17.0 percent of the U.S. civilian labor force ages 16 years and older in the fourth quarter of 2020, down from 17.2 percent a year earlier.16 Foreign-born people saw a larger increase in their unemployment rate in 2020 (up 4.4 percentage points, to 7.2 percent) than did native-born people (up 2.8 percentage points, to 6.3 percent). (Data are not seasonally adjusted.) Foreign-born workers were more likely to be employed in service occupations and production, transportation, and material moving occupations; as noted previously, these occupations had the largest over-the-year increases in unemployment rates.17 The employment–population ratio for the foreign born decreased by 4.8 percentage points over the year, dropping to 59.6 percent, while the ratio for the native born decreased by 3.3 percentage points to reach 57.1 percent. (See table 9.)

Table 9. Employment status of the foreign- and native-born populations, by gender, quarterly averages, not seasonally adjusted, 2019–20 (levels in thousands)
Employment status and nativityTotalMenWomen
Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020Fourth quarter, 2019Fourth quarter, 2020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020

Foreign born, 16 years and older

Civilian labor force

28,20727,314–89316,24715,692–55512,24911,623–626

Participation rate

66.364.2–2.177.976.8–1.155.052.6–2.4

Employed

27,42025,340–2,08015,78214,712–1,07011,79510,628–1,167

Employment-population ratio

64.459.6–4.875.772.0–3.753.048.1–4.9

Unemployed

7871,9741,187464979515454995541

Unemployment rate

2.87.24.42.96.23.33.78.64.9

Native born, 16 years and older

Civilian labor force

136,116133,198–2,91869,72469,322–40264,41363,876–537

Participation rate

62.660.9–1.766.965.5–1.457.956.7–1.2

Employed

131,418124,743–6,67567,05964,634–2,42562,17960,109–2,070

Employment-population ratio

60.457.1–3.364.361.1–3.255.953.3–2.6

Unemployed

4,6988,4553,7572,6644,6882,0242,2343,7671,533

Unemployment rate

3.56.32.83.86.83.03.55.92.4

Note: The foreign born are those residing in the United States who were not U.S. citizens at birth. That is, they were born outside of the United States or one of its outlying areas, such as Puerto Rico or Guam, to parents who were not U.S. citizens. This group includes legally admitted immigrants, refugees, students, temporary workers, and undocumented immigrants. The survey data, however, do not separately identify the number of people in these different categories. The native born are people who were born in the United States or one of its outlying areas, such as Puerto Rico or Guam, or who were born abroad of at least one parent who was a U.S. citizen.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

Although labor force participation declined for both the native born and the foreign born in 2020, foreign-born people continued to have a higher labor force participation rate than native-born people. The labor force participation rate for the foreign born declined by 2.1 percentage points in 2020, to 64.2 percent, while the rate for the native born decreased by 1.7 percentage points, to 60.9 percent.

The number of people not in the labor force increased by 4.9 million

People who are not employed or unemployed are classified as not in the labor force.18 The total number of people not in the labor force increased by 4.9 million over the year to reach 100.5 million at the end of 2020. Although most people who are not in the labor force do not want a job, the number of people who do want a job but had not sought employment in the 4 weeks preceding the survey increased by 2.2 million over the year, reaching 7.0 million in the fourth quarter of 2020. (See table 10.)

Table 10. Number of people not in the labor force, quarterly averages, seasonally adjusted, 2019–20 (in thousands)
CategoryFourth quarter, 20192020Change, fourth quarter 2019 to fourth quarter 2020
First quarter, 2020Second quarter, 2020Third quarter, 2020Fourth quarter, 2020

Total not in the labor force

95,58195,755101,891100,231100,4734,892

People who currently want a job

4,8345,1498,9907,3047,0472,213

Marginally attached to the labor force[1]

1,2521,4012,3821,9902,076824

Discouraged workers[2]

308424635601637329

[1] The marginally attached refer to people who want a job, have searched for work during the prior 12 months, and were available to take a job during the reference week but had not looked for work in the 4 weeks prior to the survey.

[2] Discouraged workers include people who did not actively look for work in the 4 weeks prior to the survey for reasons such as they thought that no work is available, they could not find work, they lack schooling or training, the employer thinks they are too young or old, and other types of discrimination.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

People who were not in the labor force were considered marginally attached to the labor force if they wanted a job, were available for work, and had looked for work in the prior 12 months (but not in the 4 weeks before the survey). In the fourth quarter of 2020, 2.1 million people were marginally attached to the labor force, an increase of 824,000 from a year earlier. (See chart 8.)

A subset of the marginally attached are discouraged workers—people not currently looking for work because they are discouraged over their job prospects.19 In the fourth quarter of 2020, the number of discouraged workers, at 637,000, was about twice the number from a year earlier.

All six measures of labor underutilization increased in 2020

Each of the six measures of labor underutilization increased in 2020. In the third quarter of 2020, U-1, at 4.9 percent, reached its highest level since the fourth quarter of 2011, before it decreased to 3.6 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020. (See the box that follows for more information about the six measures of labor underutilization.) Because U-1 is a measure of people who were unemployed for 15 weeks or longer, the rate remained low in the early days of the pandemic; the U-1 rate increased later in the year, as many unemployed people were not recalled to work as they originally expected, while others lost their jobs permanently and did not find new work, despite searching for work for 3 months or longer.

Alternative measures of labor underutilization

Six alternative measures of labor underutilization have been available on a monthly basis from the Current Population Survey for the United States as a whole since 1994. The official unemployment rate (U-3 in the six alternative measures) includes all jobless people who are available to take a job and have actively sought work in the past 4 weeks (as well as people on temporary layoff). The other measures encompass concepts both narrower (U-1 and U-2) and broader (U-4, U-5, and U-6) than the official unemployment rate. The six measures are defined as follows:

  • U-1: people unemployed 15 weeks or longer, as a percent of the civilian labor force;
  • U-2: job losers and people who completed temporary jobs, as a percent of the civilian labor force;
  • U-3: total unemployed, as a percent of the civilian labor force (this is the definition used for the official unemployment rate);
  • U-4: total unemployed plus discouraged workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus discouraged workers;
  • U-5: total unemployed, plus discouraged workers, plus all other marginally attached workers, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers;
  • U-6: total unemployed, plus all marginally attached workers, plus total employed part time for economic reasons, as a percent of the civilian labor force plus all marginally attached workers.

Discouraged workers (included in the U-4, U-5, and U-6 measures) are people who are not in the labor force, want and are available for work, and had looked for a job sometime in the prior 12 months. They are not counted as unemployed because they had not searched for work in the 4 weeks preceding the survey. Discouraged workers are not currently looking for work specifically because they believe that no jobs are available for them or there are none for which they are qualified. The group of people who are marginally attached to the labor force (included in the U-5 and U-6 measures) includes discouraged workers. The criteria for the marginally attached are the same as for discouraged workers, with the exception that any reason can be cited for their lack of job search in the 4 weeks prior to the survey. People at work part time for economic reasons (included in the U-6 measure) are those working less than 35 hours per week who want to work full time, are available to do so, and give an economic reason (their hours had been cut back or they were unable to find a full-time job) for working part time. These individuals are sometimes referred to as involuntary part-time workers.

The other five measures of labor underutilization (U2 to U6) reached their highest levels since 1994 in the second quarter of 2020.20 Each of the five rates have fallen since their peak in the second quarter of 2020; however, the rates in the fourth quarter of 2020 were still well above those of a year earlier. (See chart 9.)

Unemployed people were more likely to remain unemployed than they were before the pandemic

In the CPS, for any given month, a person can be classified in one of three labor force categories: employed, unemployed, or not in the labor force. A person’s labor force status can change or remain the same from month to month. For example, an unemployed person could remain unemployed, find employment, or leave the labor force. In 2020, 21.7 million people, or 8.4 percent of the population ages 16 and older, changed their labor force status in an average month. This represents the highest annual rate of change in labor market status since 1990, the first year for which comparable data are available.

The CPS data on labor force flows provide additional insights into changes in the unemployment rate.21 In December 2020, 54.6 percent of the unemployed remained unemployed in the following month. (Data are seasonally adjusted 3-month moving averages.) This was higher than the percentage a year earlier, when 48.6 percent remained unemployed. Among the unemployed, 24.8 percent found employment and 20.6 percent left the labor force in December 2020. These measures are down from 27.3 percent and 24.1 percent, respectively, from a year earlier. (See chart 10.)

New pandemic-related questions were added to the CPS in May 2020

In May 2020, the CPS included new questions to measure the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the labor market.22 The questions gathered information on whether people teleworked because of the pandemic, whether they were unable to work because their business closed or lost business because of the pandemic, whether they received pay for the time they were unable to work, and whether they were unable to look for work because of the pandemic.

In May 2020, shortly after the onset of the pandemic, 35.4 percent of employed people had teleworked or worked from home at any time during the 4 weeks prior to the survey because of the pandemic.23 The share of the employed who teleworked trended down during the rest of the year and had dropped to 23.7 percent by December 2020.

People with higher levels of educational attainment were more likely to telework because of the pandemic than those with less formal education. In December 2020, among workers ages 25 and older, 52.0 percent of people with an advanced degree and 37.5 percent of those with only a bachelor’s degree had teleworked in the 4 weeks prior to the survey because of the pandemic.24 By contrast, only 3.2 percent of people with less than a high school diploma had teleworked in the prior 4 weeks because of the pandemic. (See table 11.)

Table 11. Employed people who teleworked or worked at home for pay at any time in the 4 weeks prior to the survey because of the COVID-19 pandemic, by selected characteristics, December 2020 (levels in thousands)
CharacteristicTotal employedPeople who teleworked because of the COVID-19 pandemicPercent distribution
TotalPercent of total employedTotal employedPeople who teleworked because of the COVID-19 pandemic

Total, 25 years and older

131,81733,66325.5100.0100.0

Less than a high school diploma

8,2882643.26.30.8

High school graduates, no college

32,0062,7388.624.38.1

Some college or associate degree

33,5385,67716.925.416.9

Bachelor's degree and higher

57,98524,98343.144.074.2

Bachelor's degree only

35,67513,37237.527.139.7

Advanced degree

22,30911,61152.016.934.5

Note: Data for people who teleworked because of the COVID-19 pandemic refer to those who teleworked or worked at home specifically because of the COVID-19 pandemic and do not include people whose telework was unrelated to the pandemic, such as those who worked entirely from home before the pandemic. The data are not seasonally adjusted.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

As noted previously, people working in food preparation and serving related occupations were among those most affected by the pandemic—this occupation had the highest unemployment rate (19.6 percent) among the major occupational groups in 2020.25 People in these occupations tend to be younger—39.4 percent of workers in food preparation and serving related occupations were ages 16 to 24, compared with 11.6 percent for all occupations. (Data are 2020 annual averages.) Although some workers could continue doing their jobs remotely, telework was not a viable option for many restaurant workers, and this was reflected in the data on pandemic-related telework. In December 2020, only 2.8 percent of workers in food preparation and serving related occupations had teleworked.

This pattern was also evident in the age breakdown of pandemic-related telework.26 In December 2020, 10.3 percent of workers ages 16 to 24 had teleworked in the 4 weeks prior to the survey because of the pandemic, compared with 26.7 percent of workers ages 25 to 54 and 22.3 percent of workers ages 55 and over.

In May 2020, 49.8 million people (19.2 percent of the population) reported that they could not work at some point during the 4 weeks prior to the survey because their employer closed or lost business as a result of the pandemic. This measure includes people whose hours had been reduced and those who were unemployed or not in the labor force. By December, the number of people unable to work because of the pandemic had decreased to 15.8 million, or 6.1 percent of the population. (Data are not seasonally adjusted.)

People who could not work because of the pandemic were asked if they had received any pay from their employer for hours they did not work in the 4 weeks prior to the survey. In May 2020, 17.6 percent of those unable to work because of the pandemic received pay. This estimate was lower later in the year—12.8 percent in December.

People who were not in the labor force were asked if the pandemic had prevented them from looking for work in the previous 4 weeks. In May 2020, 9.7 million people were prevented from looking for work because of the pandemic. In December, less than half as many (4.6 million) were prevented from looking for work. This group included 2.2 million who currently wanted a job; if they had looked for work and were available to take a job, they would have been counted among the unemployed. (See table 12.)

Table 12. Percent of people who teleworked, were prevented from working, were paid for hours not worked, and who did not look for work, not seasonally adjusted, May to December, 2020
MonthMonth teleworked[1]Prevented from working[2]Paid for hours not worked[3]Did not look for work[4]

May

35.419.217.69.5

June

31.315.515.47.1

July

26.412.012.66.5

August

24.39.311.65.2

September

22.77.410.34.5

October

21.25.811.73.6

November

21.85.713.73.9

December

23.76.112.84.5

[1] These are people who teleworked or worked from home because of the COVID-19 pandemic in the 4 weeks prior to the survey. The question was asked of employed people. People whose telework was not related to the pandemic are not included.

[2] These are people who were unable to work during the 4 weeks prior to the survey because their employer closed or lost business because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[3] These are people who received pay from their employer for hours not worked in the 4 weeks prior to the survey. The question was asked of people who were unable to work because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

[4] People who were prevented from looking for work within the last 4 weeks because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The question was asked of people who were not in the labor force.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

Pandemic-related job losses made it difficult to gauge earnings growth

In 2020, most economic indicators showed the impact of the pandemic, and earnings were no exception. However, changes in median weekly earnings during the year must be interpreted with caution.27 There was an unusually large increase in median weekly earnings in the second quarter of 2020, but that reflected the precipitous declines in employment among lower paid workers (who were disproportionately affected by job loss related to the pandemic), compared with higher-paid workers.28 When lower paid workers lost their jobs, they dropped out of the distribution of earnings, and this put upward pressure on the median (the midpoint of the earnings distribution). Earnings data for the third and fourth quarters of the year continued to be affected by the uneven pace of the resumption of labor market activity. This large and abrupt shift in the earnings distribution during the year led to an increase in earnings in 2020; however, the underlying rate of growth in workers’ earnings is difficult to discern because of the sudden and dramatic shift in the earnings distribution.29

Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers were $984 in 2020. (Data are annual averages and are in current dollars.) Although pandemic-related job losses made it difficult to gauge the trend growth in earnings, the earnings profile in 2020 in terms of major demographic and other characteristics mirrored those of recent years. Women’s median weekly earnings in 2020 were $891, or 82.3 percent of men’s weekly earnings ($1,082). The women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio has remained between 80 to 83 percent since 2004. (See table 13 and chart 11.)

Table 13. Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers, by selected characteristics, annual averages, 2019–20
CharacteristicCurrent dollars
20192020Percent change, 2019–20

Total, 16 years and older

$917$9847.3

CPI-U (1982–84 = 100)

255.66258.811.2

Men

$1,007$1,0827.4

Women

8218918.5

White

9451,0036.1

Men

1,0361,1107.1

Women

8409057.7

Black or African American

7357948.0

Men

7698307.9

Women

7047648.5

Asian

1,1741,31011.6

Men

1,3361,4478.3

Women

1,0251,14311.5

Hispanic or Latino ethnicity

7067587.4

Men

7477976.7

Women

6427059.8

Total, 25 years and older

9691,0296.2

Less than a high school diploma

5926194.6

High school graduate, no college

7467814.7

Some college or associate degree

8569035.5

Bachelor's degree or higher

1,3671,4214.0

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

Earnings also continued to vary by age and gender, exhibiting the same basic patterns as in recent years. For both men and women, earnings were lowest for those ages 16 to 24, followed by 25- to 34-year-olds. Earnings of those ages 35 to 64 ranged from $1,205 to $1,260 for men and $955 to $978 for women. The women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio was higher among younger workers than among older workers. For example, the ratio was 94.7 percent for 16- to 24-year-olds, compared with 77.5 percent among 45- to 54-year-olds. (See chart 12.)

In 2020, median weekly earnings among the major race and ethnicity groups continued to be higher for Asians ($1,310) and Whites ($1,003) than for Blacks ($794) and Hispanics ($758). The women’s-to-men’s earnings ratio varied by race and ethnicity. White women earned 81.5 percent as much as their male counterparts, compared with 92.0 percent for Black women, 79.0 percent for Asian women, and 88.5 percent for Hispanic women.

Earnings are positively correlated with educational attainment.30 Among full-time wage and salary workers ages 25 and older, workers with a bachelor’s degree and higher had median weekly earnings of $1,421. Those with some college or an associate degree had weekly earnings of $903, and earnings for high school graduates (no college) were $781. Workers with less than a high school diploma had the lowest weekly earnings, at $619.

Among the major occupational groups, people employed full time in management, professional, and related occupations had the highest median weekly earnings—$1,578 for men and $1,164 for women. As has historically been the case, men ($704) and women ($574) employed in service occupations earned the least in 2020. (See table 14.)

Table 14. Median usual weekly earnings of full-time wage and salary workers, by occupation and gender, annual averages, 2020
Occupation and genderNumber of workers (in thousands)Median weekly earnings

Total, 16 years and older

110,387$984

Management, professional, and related occupations

50,0231,356

Management, business, and financial operations occupations

20,8111,461

Professional and related occupations

29,2131,270

Service occupations

13,771621

Sales and office occupations

21,165809

Sales and related occupations

8,958880

Office and administrative support occupations

12,207781

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations

10,690905

Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations

787589

Construction and extraction occupations

5,826906

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

4,077984

Production, transportation, and material moving occupations

14,738746

Production occupations

6,820775

Transportation and material moving occupations

7,917719

Men, 16 years and older

60,9111,082

Management, professional, and related occupations

24,0901,578

Management, business, and financial operations occupations

11,0821,667

Professional and related occupations

13,0081,532

Service occupations

6,740704

Sales and office occupations

8,435956

Sales and related occupations

4,9911,046

Office and administrative support occupations

3,445868

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations

10,152917

Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations

600608

Construction and extraction occupations

5,635910

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

3,917991

Production, transportation, and material moving occupations

11,494796

Production occupations

5,055841

Transportation and material moving occupations

6,439759

Women, 16 years and older

49,476891

Management, professional, and related occupations

25,9331,164

Management, business, and financial operations occupations

9,7291,274

Professional and related occupations

16,2041,121

Service occupations

7,032574

Sales and office occupations

12,729746

Sales and related occupations

3,967715

Office and administrative support occupations

8,762756

Natural resources, construction, and maintenance occupations

538682

Farming, fishing, and forestry occupations

187528

Construction and extraction occupations

191796

Installation, maintenance, and repair occupations

160801

Production, transportation, and material moving occupations

3,243614

Production occupations

1,765630

Transportation and material moving occupations

1,478600

Note: Updated population controls are introduced annually with the release of January data.

Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Current Population Survey.

Summary

The national unemployment rate reached 13.0 percent in the second quarter of 2020, as the economic expansion ended early in 2020 and the nation fell into recession because of the COVID-19 pandemic. As the nation struggled to reopen its economy fully, the jobless rate fell to 6.7 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020; even with the decline, the rate was almost twice as high as it was a year earlier. At the end of the year, the number of people on temporary layoff, as well as permanent job losers and people unemployed for 27 weeks or longer, were also much higher than they were a year earlier. The number of employed people, at 149.8 million in the fourth quarter of 2020, fell by 8.8 million over the year, as improvements in the third and fourth quarters did not make up for the employment losses in the second quarter. The labor force participation rate fell by 1.7 percentage points over the year, reaching 61.5 percent in the fourth quarter of 2020, with the rate for women declining somewhat more sharply.

Suggested citation:

Sean M. Smith, Roxanna Edwards, and Hao C. Duong, "Unemployment rises in 2020, as the country battles the COVID-19 pandemic," Monthly Labor Review, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, June 2021, https://doi.org/10.21916/mlr.2021.12.

Notes


1 The Business Cycle Dating Committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) is the official arbiter of the beginning and ending dates of recessions and expansions in the United States. According to NBER, the most recent expansion began in June 2009 and ended in February 2020. Or, in terms of quarters, the expansion began in the second quarter of 2009 and ended in the fourth quarter of 2019. For the quarterly analysis in this article, the NBER-designated quarterly dates are used. According to NBER, the “trough” of a recession marks the beginning of an expansion, and the “peak” of an expansion marks the beginning of a recession. Therefore, the economic expansion that ended in February 2020 lasted for 128 months or 42 quarters, surpassing the economic expansion of March (first quarter) 1991 to March (first quarter) 2001, which lasted for 120 months (or 40 quarters) and had been the longest expansion on record. An endpoint for the recession that began in February 2020 has not yet been determined. For further analysis of the U.S. labor market during the Great Recession and the decade that followed, see Evan Cunningham, “Great Recession, great recovery? Trends from the Current Population Survey,” Monthly Labor Review, April 2018, www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2018/article/great-recession-great-recovery.htm.

2 The forerunner to the Current Population Survey (CPS), known as the Sample Survey of Unemployment, was initiated in 1940 by the Work Projects Administration. The survey was transferred to the U.S. Census Bureau in 1942 and became widely known as the “Current Population Survey” in 1948. Historical comparisons in this article use data for 1948 and later years; the data are seasonally adjusted and are for people 16 years and older. For more on the history of the CPS, see “Current Population Survey,” Handbook of Methods (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2018), pp. 19–21, https://www.bls.gov/opub/hom/cps/pdf/cps.pdf; see also, Megan Dunn, Steven E. Haugen, and Janie-Lynn Kang; “The Current Population Survey—tracking unemployment in the United States for over 75 years,” Monthly Labor Review, January 2018, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2018/article/the-current-population-survey-tracking-unemployment.htm.

3 In the CPS, unemployed people are defined as those ages 16 years and older who were not employed during the survey reference week, had actively searched for work during the 4 weeks prior to the survey, and were available for work. People who were on temporary layoff and available for work are counted as unemployed and do not have to have searched for work during the reference period.

4 Although data from the CPS are published monthly, the data analyzed in this article are seasonally adjusted quarterly averages, and, unless otherwise noted, all over-the-year changes compare data from the fourth quarter of 2019 to the fourth quarter of 2020.

5 The Great Recession began in December 2007, or the fourth quarter of 2007, and ended in June 2009, or the second quarter of 2009, as determined by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). For more information about U.S. business cycle expansions and contractions, see https://www.nber.org/research/data/us-business-cycle-expansions-and-contractions.

6 Beginning with data for January 2020, the Current Population Survey (CPS) has classified occupations according to the Census 2018 occupational classification system, which is derived from the 2018 Standard Occupational Classification (SOC) system. The 2018 SOC system replaced the earlier 2010 Census occupational classification based on the 2010 SOC system, which was used in the CPS from January 2011 through December 2019. As a result of this change, CPS occupational data from January 2020 and later are not comparable with occupational data from earlier years. Although the names of the broad- and intermediate-level occupational groups in the 2018 SOC system remained the same, some detailed occupations were reclassified between the broader groups, which substantially affects data comparability over time. For example, within sales and office occupations, the office and administrative support occupations group is now smaller in scope. (The titles of the groups were unchanged.) Stock clerks and order fillers, which employed 1.5 million people in 2019, moved out of the broad group office and administrative support occupations and into transportation and material moving occupations. Similarly, computer operators, which employed 72,000 people in 2019, moved out of office and administrative support occupations and into computer and mathematical occupations. In addition, within production, transportation, and material moving occupations, the transportation and material moving occupations group is now larger in scope because it includes stock clerks and order fillers. Finally, some detailed occupations were reclassified but remained in the same broad occupation category—within service occupations, for example, personal care aides, which employed 1.5 million people in 2019, moved from personal care and service occupations to healthcare support occupations. For more information, see “Industry and Occupation Classification” (U.S. Census Bureau, October 2020), https://www.census.gov/programs-surveys/cps/technical-documentation/methodology/industry-and-occupation-classification.html.

7 For more information on the percentage of women and men who take care of children and perform other household activities on a given day, see American Time Use Survey—2019 Results, USDL-20-1275 (U.S. Department of Labor, June 25, 2020), www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/atus.pdf. For estimates of unpaid eldercare providers, see Unpaid Eldercare in the United States—2017–18: Data from the American Time Use Survey, USDL-19-2051 (U.S. Department of Labor, November 22, 2019), www.bls.gov/news.release/pdf/elcare.pdf.

8 For more information, see Misty L. Heggeness, Jason Fields, Yazmin A. Garcia Trejo, and Anthony Schulzetenberg, “Tracking job losses for mothers of school-age children during a health crisis,” (U.S. Census Bureau, March 3, 2021), https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2021/03/moms-work-and-the-pandemic.html.

9 People whose ethnicity is identified as Hispanic or Latino may be of any race. In the CPS, about 90 percent of people of Hispanic or Latino ethnicity are classified as White.

10 See Amara Omeokwe, “Pandemic accelerates retirements, threatening economic growth,” Wall Street Journal, March 28, 2021, https://www.wsj.com/articles/pandemic-accelerates-retirements-threatening-economic-growth-11616940000?mod=hp_major_pos2#cxrecs_s.

11 Since 1992, educational attainment in the CPS refers to the highest diploma or degree obtained. Prior to 1992, educational attainment referred to the number of years of school completed. The pre-1992 educational attainment categories are not strictly comparable with the current categories.

12 The CPS collects data on the different reasons that people are unemployed, including being on temporary layoff. Unemployed people on temporary layoff are those who (1) said they were laid off or were not at work during the survey reference week because of layoff (temporary or indefinite) or slack work or business conditions, (2) have been given a date to return or expect to be recalled within the next 6 months, and (3) could have returned to work if they had been recalled (except for those who had a temporary illness that prevented them from returning to work). Unlike other unemployed people, those on temporary layoff do not need to be actively looking for work to be classified as unemployed. Pay status is not part of the criteria for being classified as unemployed on temporary layoff. People absent from work because of temporary layoff are classified as unemployed on temporary layoff, whether or not they were paid during the time they were off work.

13 For more information about duration of unemployment during 2020, see “36.9 percent of unemployed jobless 27 weeks or more as pandemic continues, November 2020,” The Economics Daily (U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, December 9, 2020), www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2020/36-point-9-percent-of-unemployed-jobless-27-weeks-or-more-as-pandemic-continues-november-2020.htm.

14 BLS produces measures of people at work part time for economic and noneconomic reasons from the CPS. People at work part time for economic reasons, also referred to as involuntary part-time workers, include those who gave an economic reason when asked why they worked 1 to 34 hours during the reference week (the week including the 12th of the month). Economic reasons include the following: slack work, unfavorable business conditions, inability to find full-time work, and seasonal declines in demand. People who usually work part time and were at work part time during the reference week must indicate that they wanted and were available for full-time work to be classified as part time for economic reasons.

15 In the CPS, veterans are defined as men and women 18 years and older who previously served on active duty in the U.S. Armed Forces and who were civilians at the time the survey was conducted. Veterans are categorized as having served in the following periods of service: (1) Gulf War era II (September 2001 to the present), (2) Gulf War era I (August 1990 to August 2001), (3) Vietnam era (August 1964 to April 1975), (4) Korean War (July 1950 to January 1955), (5) World War II (December 1941 to December 1946), and (6) other service periods (all other periods). Veterans who served in more than one wartime period are classified into only the most recent one. Veterans who served in both a wartime period and any other service period are classified only in the wartime period.

16 The foreign born are people who reside in the United States but were not U.S. citizens at birth. Specifically, they were born outside the country (or outside one of its outlying areas, such as Puerto Rico or Guam), and neither parent was a U.S. citizen. The foreign born include legally admitted immigrants; refugees; temporary residents, such as students and temporary workers; and undocumented immigrants.

17 Foreign-Born Workers: Labor Force Characteristics—2020, USDL 21-0905 (U.S. Department of Labor, May 18, 2021), https://www.bls.gov/news.release/archives/forbrn_05182021.pdf.

18 For additional information, see Steven F. Hipple, “People who are not in the labor force: why aren’t they working?” Beyond the Numbers, December 2015, www.bls.gov/opub/btn/volume-4/people-who-are-not-in-the-labor-force-why-arent-they-working.htm.

19 Discouraged workers may indicate that no jobs are available for them; they lack education, training, or experience needed to find a job; or they believe they face some type of discrimination, such as being too young or too old.

20 The alternative measures of labor underutilization were introduced in 1994. U-3, the total number of people unemployed as a percentage of the labor force, is the official unemployment rate. For more information on the alternative measures of labor underutilization, see table A–15 in The Employment Situation news release, https://www.bls.gov/news.release/empsit.nr0.htm.

21 For more information on this topic, see Harley Frazis, “Employed workers leaving the labor force: an analysis of recent trends,” Monthly Labor Review, May 2017, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2017/article/employed-workers-leaving-the-labor-force-an-analysis-of-recent-trends.htm; Randy E. Ilg and Eleni Theodossiou, “Job search of the unemployed by duration of unemployment,” Monthly Labor Review, March 2012, https://www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2012/03/art3full.pdf; and “Research series on labor force status flows from the Current Population Survey,” available at www.bls.gov/cps/cps_flows.htm

22 These data are not seasonally adjusted and are available as monthly estimates. For more information, see www.bls.gov/cps/effects-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic.htm.

23 People did not have to telework for the entire time that they worked to be counted among those who telework. People whose telework was not related to the pandemic, such as those who worked entirely from home before the pandemic, are not included in this measure.

24 Data on people ages 25 and older who teleworked because of the pandemic, by educational attainment, are available at www.bls.gov/cps/effects-of-the-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic.htm#table1.

25 See Matthew Dey and Mark A. Loewenstein, “How many workers are employed in sectors directly affected by COVID-19 shutdowns, where do they work, and how much do they earn?” Monthly Labor Review, April 2020, www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/article/covid-19-shutdowns.htm

26 See Matthew Dey, Harley Frazis, Mark A. Loewenstein, and Hugette Sun, “Ability to work from home: evidence from two surveys and implications for the labor market in the COVID-19 pandemic,” Monthly Labor Review, June 2020, www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/article/ability-to-work-from-home.htm

27 Data are annual averages and are in current dollars. The CPS data on earnings represent earnings before taxes and other deductions and include any overtime pay, commissions, or tips typically received. For multiple jobholders, only earnings received at their main job are included. Earnings reported on a nonweekly basis are converted to a weekly equivalent. The term “usual” reflects each survey respondent’s understanding of the term. If the respondent asks for a definition of “usual,” interviewers are instructed to define the term as more than half the weeks worked during the past 4 or 5 months. Wage and salary workers are defined as those who receive wages, salaries, commissions, tips, payment in kind, or piece rates. This definition includes both public- and private-sector employees but excludes all self-employed people, regardless of whether their business is incorporated or unincorporated. Earnings comparisons made in this article are on a broad level and do not control for many factors that can be important in explaining earnings differences, such as job skills and responsibilities, work experience, and specialization. Finally, full-time workers are those who usually work 35 hours or more per week at their main job.

28 See Matthew Dey, Mark A. Loewenstein, David S. Piccone Jr, and Anne E. Polivka, “Demographics, earnings, and family characteristics of workers in sectors initially affected by COVID-19 shutdowns,” Monthly Labor Review, June 2020, www.bls.gov/opub/mlr/2020/article/demographics-earnings-and-family-characteristics-of-workers-in-sectors-initially-affected-by-covid-19-shutdowns.htm.

29 For more information on this issue, see Erin E. Crust, Mary C. Daly, and Bart Hobijn, “The illusion of wage growth,” FRBSF Economic Letter, August 31, 2020, www.frbsf.org/economic-research/publications/economic-letter/2020/august/illusion-of-wage-growth/.

30 For further discussion about the benefits of college education, see Jaison R. Abel and Richard Deitz, “Do the benefits of college still outweigh the costs?” Current Issues in Economics and Finance, vol. 20, no. 3, 2014, www.newyorkfed.org/medialibrary/media/research/current_issues/ci20-3.pdf.

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About the Author

Sean M. Smith
smith.sean@bls.gov

Sean M. Smith is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Roxanna Edwards
edwards.roxanna@bls.gov

Roxanna Edwards is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Hao C. Duong
duong.hao@bls.gov

Hao C. Duong is an economist in the Office of Employment and Unemployment Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

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