New Report Gives Initial Snapshot Into Shutdown's Impact On Regional Labor Market

Jun 22, 2020

A new University of Pittsburgh survey offers initial insights into how Pennsylvania’s COVID-19 response impacted Allegheny County’s labor force in the weeks after the statewide shutdown went into effect. 

The report, compiled by Pitt’s University Center for Social and Urban Research, incorporates survey data collected between April 15 and May 8, before Allegheny County moved into the yellow and green phases of Gov. Tom Wolf’s phased reopening plan. It breaks down changes in employment status or work circumstances by demographic categories since the shutdown began.

Among the starkest data points included in the report: the difference in workers’ employment statuses broken down by educational attainment  Nearly 30 percent of respondents with a high school diploma or less said they’d lost work due to COVID-19, according to the report compiled by Pitt. That’s compared to slightly more than 11 percent of those with a bachelor’s degree and 6 percent of those with a master’s or higher.

“Even though a lot of essential frontline workers are probably folks who may not have advanced education, at the end of the day, a tremendous amount of job loss fell on those with a high school degree or less,” said Chris Briem, a Pitt regional economist and author of the report on the survey’s findings. 

According to Briem, the relationship between level of education and employment status during the shutdown tracks with initial expectations. Businesses deemed non-essential during the shutdown—such as most in-person retail outlets and sit-down restaurant locations—rely heavily on unskilled labor. On the other hand, workers in higher skilled industries were likely to be able to work from home. 

Change in employment status and situation also broke down along generational lines. During past downturns, Briem said, younger and less experienced workers usually lose work first. This time, he said, that does not seem to be the case. 

“Really, the younger workers here in Allegheny County were the most able to shift into telework fairly quickly and suffered the least job loss,” Briem said. “And, really, the older workers, especially elderly workers, suffered the worst job losses.”

Allegheny County's unemployment rate sat at 15.9 percent in April, while Pennsylvania’s statewide rate was 15.1 percent. The statewide rate fell to 13.1 percent in May, according to figures released on Friday by the state Department of Labor and Industry, as many counties began to partially reopen. County-level employment numbers for May have not yet been released.

Since survey responses were only collected through early May, before business and distancing restrictions began to ease in Allegheny County, the data does not necessarily offer an accurate picture of where the region’s labor force stands at this moment. But Pitt’s Briem said the numbers will offer a baseline for how the labor market is improving moving forward.

“Because I suspect that, while some jobs will come back quickly, others are probably going to have a much longer period of climbing to past levels if they ever reach that,” Briem said. “There's some fundamental shifts that I think we'll be tracking long into the future.”