Who are the workers already impacted by the COVID-19 recession?

Muhammad Awais, 36, retail manager wears a disposable face mask at a safety equipment store in the Brooklyn borough of New York City, U.S., March 26, 2020. REUTERS/Stephen Yang

Over the last few weeks, government responses to arrest the spread of the coronavirus pandemic have brought massive disruptions to Americans’ economic lives. The people feeling those disruptions most viscerally include the millions of U.S. workers left jobless by shuttered restaurants, hotels, and retail stores, plummeting air and rail travel, and emptied museums, casinos, and sports stadiums. In just two short weeks, a record 10 million American workers filed claims for unemployment benefits.

The plight of these individuals and their families motivated Congress and the administration to enact significant increases to unemployment benefits, assistance to small businesses, and direct payments to individuals in the $2.2 trillion CARES Act. Now, however, leaders beyond Washington—most prominently at the local level—must provide affected workers with information and connections to not only federal assistance, but also local emergency “bridge” programs that can help them while they await support.

To that end, this brief offers first-order estimates of the size and characteristics of the workforce most immediately impacted by pandemic responses. We first compiled a list of immediate-risk industries in which social distancing measures, travel restrictions, and related government actions have already heavily curtailed employment. These build upon—with greater specificity and two weeks of additional evidence—the vulnerable industries our colleagues Mark Muro, Robert Maxim, and Jacob Whiton analyzed to pinpoint the places at greatest economic risk from the COVID-19 recession.

We then used 2018 Census Bureau data to examine the size, location, and demographic/economic profile of vulnerable workers in those industries, including detail for each of the nation’s 384 metropolitan areas, which approximate local labor markets. This information can help policymakers, program architects, outreach specialists, and funders scale and target their efforts to help economically vulnerable individuals and their families weather a fierce economic storm.

Over 37 million Americans work in industries immediately impacted by COVID-19

As of 2018, immediate-risk industries employed a total of 37.2 million people, or 23% of the total U.S. workforce. These industries include those facing near-term impacts from measures taken to combat the spread of the coronavirus, such as retail, passenger transportation, arts and entertainment, accommodation, restaurants and bars, and a variety of other personal services. (The appendix contains a full list of the impacted industries we identified.)

To be sure, not every worker in these industries faces the immediate prospect of job loss; U.S. airlines are still flying planes, many restaurants are providing takeout service, and a patchwork of state and local responses to the virus means that retailers remain open for business in some places. And the economic pain is not limited to these sectors; the producers and wholesalers who supply these consumer-facing industries are also feeling the impact, or will very soon. Yet the nearly one-quarter of American workers employed in immediate-risk industries represent, in many ways, the first dominoes to fall in an economic downturn of unknown length and severity.

Among the 37.2 million vulnerable workers, nearly 10 million—more than one in four—are employed in what the Census Bureau terms the “food services and drinking places” industry, commonly known as restaurants and bars. General merchandise stores (mostly department stores) are the next largest immediate-risk industry by employment, at 2.8 million. As evidence of the peril that industry faces, on March 30, Macy’s announced it would furlough most of its 125,000 employees. Personal services (mostly barbershops, beauty salons, and laundry services) and amusement services (mostly casinos) followed, with 2.6 million and 2.2 million workers, respectively.


Major metropolitan areas contain hundreds of thousands of workers in immediate-risk industries

Transportation, retail, hotels, and restaurants/bars are ubiquitous industries in and around American cities. As a result, large numbers of residents in major U.S. metro areas rely on immediate-risk industries for employment.

In 2018, there were 13 U.S. metro areas in which at least half a million people were employed in immediate-risk industries. The New York City region alone, which has been hit especially hard by the coronavirus, is home to 2.2 million workers in immediate-risk industries. In California, an early epicenter of the crisis, the Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Inland Empire regions all count at least 500,000 workers in these sectors. And in the Miami-Fort Lauderdale metro area, where state and local governments are finally taking stricter steps to enforce social distancing, 860,000 people work in these highly impacted industries.

Table 2

A different group of metro areas has the highest shares of their workers in immediate-risk industries. Vulnerable workers comprise at least 30% of the total workforce in a mix of tourism-dependent (e.g., Las Vegas, Myrtle Beach, S.C., Lake Havasu City, Ariz., Honolulu, and several places in Florida) and energy-dependent (e.g., Midland, Texas, Casper, Wyo., Lafayette, La., and East Stroudsburg, Pa.) metro areas. These places are likely to face spikes in family needs and accompanying pressure on local officials to connect displaced workers to resources, even as the downturn cuts deeply into local government revenues and diminishes local fiscal capacity.

Map 1

Vulnerable workers are disproportionately young, female, and possess less formal education

Sectors such as retail, food service, and arts/entertainment have traditionally provided gateway jobs for younger people getting started in their careers, people working part time or seasonally, and people with lower levels of educational attainment. These industries face immediate risks from the pandemic, resulting in a set of vulnerable workers with a distinct demographic profile.

Workers in immediate-risk industries are indeed younger than those in other sectors. Nationwide, 22% of all vulnerable workers are between the ages of 18 and 24, compared to just 9% of workers in industries not at immediate risk. And 43% of vulnerable workers are employed part time or seasonally, compared to only 26% of other workers. These characteristics suggest that many vulnerable workers will need to access unemployment assistance for the first time and may face added complexities determining their eligibility based on part-time earnings.

Women are disproportionately represented among the vulnerable workforce as well, accounting for 51% of these workers nationally, versus 46% in industries not at immediate risk.

In part due to their younger profile, vulnerable workers tend to have lower levels of educational attainment than other workers. Of these vulnerable workers, 42% possess no more than a high school diploma, compared to 30% of other workers. This may make it more difficult for them, at least in the short term, to redeploy their skills into other, less vulnerable industries. At the same time, their displacement could provide some of these workers with the chance to “skill up” through online education, although the quality of those offerings and access to them (i.e., via broadband internet), may be issues for many.

Chart 1

The overall racial, ethnic, and foreign-born profile of vulnerable workers is similar in many respects to that of other workers. Latino or Hispanic individuals comprise a slightly higher share of vulnerable workers (20%) than workers in industries not at immediate risk (17%). A further 13% of vulnerable workers are Black, compared to 11% of other workers.

Yet there are many metropolitan areas in which, due to occupational segregation, vulnerable workers are much more likely to be people of color than other workers. In very large metro areas such as Bridgeport, Conn., San Jose, Calif., and Washington, D.C., as well as in smaller communities such as Florence, S.C., Hammond, La., and Brunswick, Ga., the share of vulnerable workers who are Black or Latino or Hispanic is significantly higher than the corresponding share of other workers. In these regions, the immediate impacts of the downturn on communities of color may be much more pronounced than for other groups.

Table 3

Vulnerable workers are more likely to experience economic insecurity than other workers

The nature of immediate-risk industries, and the demographic profiles of their workforce, combine to result in vulnerable workers experiencing below-average earnings and greater overall economic insecurity.

On average in 2018, vulnerable workers nationwide earned $32,700, a little more than half of the average $57,700 that other workers earned. This partly reflects the greater prevalence of part-time, part-year work among vulnerable workers, but also the lower wages and salaries their industries pay. The typical (median) family in which vulnerable workers reside had an income of $63,800 in 2018, trailing the typical family income for other workers by more than $20,000.


The lower earnings and family incomes of vulnerable workers mean that many of them already struggled to get by before the current crisis. Fully 30% of these workers are in families whose incomes fell below 200% of the poverty line in 2018, a proxy for working poverty. (The 200% poverty threshold corresponded to roughly $40,000 for a family of three in 2018.) That compares to 17% for other workers.

In many metro areas, the share of vulnerable workers in working poverty is much higher. In many small and midsized Midwestern metro areas, as well as those along the southern Texas border, upward of 45% of vulnerable workers live in low-income families, reflecting the low wages and high levels of economic distress that prevailed in those locations well before the coronavirus struck.

Table 4

While vulnerable workers are somewhat less likely to have children in their families than other workers (25% versus 32%), it is still the case that millions of children are supported by parents and other caregivers who work in these immediate-risk industries. A greater share of vulnerable-worker families (22%) already received safety net support (e.g., SNAP, SSI) than other families (13%), but those resources on their own may not be sufficient to bridge some of these families to receipt of unemployment insurance benefits, or rehiring by small businesses receiving payroll support under the CARES Act.

Vulnerable workers face additional financial pressures

In addition to earning lower incomes, vulnerable workers live in households and families that— on average—appear to have less cushion for financial setbacks. Although Census Bureau data on families’ financial circumstances are limited, they provide some clues as to the added disadvantages these impacted workers may face.

Vulnerable workers are likelier to be in renter households (39%) than other workers (31%). This too reflects their younger age profile, but it also corresponds with their lower earnings and more limited opportunities to accumulate savings for home ownership. As a result, many vulnerable workers may be facing immediate pressure for making April rent payments. In many large and high-cost California metro areas, for example, more than half of vulnerable workers live in renter households. Several cities have enacted ordinances that prevent renter eviction for inability to pay due to job loss, although as our colleague Jenny Schuetz has observed, those actions create their own negative downstream effects.

Table 5

Along with lower levels of home ownership and associated equity on which to draw, only 6% of vulnerable-worker households report receiving interest, dividend, or rental income, about half the rate of households in which other workers live. This indicates that relatively few of these vulnerable workers have other types of savings they can fall back on in this labor market emergency.

While the majority of both vulnerable and other workers report that they possess health insurance, there is nonetheless a coverage gap (85% versus 90%, respectively). Moreover, 57% of vulnerable workers report that they receive health insurance through their employer. Losing their jobs, especially in the middle of a public health crisis, may thus create another financial and administrative burden for vulnerable workers, as many will scramble to enroll in public health insurance programs.

Leaders beyond Washington need to ensure vulnerable workers don’t fall through the cracks

The plight of vulnerable workers and the businesses that employed them motivated Congress and the administration to provide substantial emergency relief through the CARES Act. Yet the major provisions of that legislation—expanded and extended unemployment insurance, forgivable loans to small businesses who retain their payroll, and one-time cash payments to most adults—will take some time to hit the pockets of vulnerable workers. As this analysis demonstrates, many lack the financial cushion to weather the weeks in between.

Moreover, the systems on which that emergency assistance is built—particularly unemployment insurance—may fail to cover many vulnerable workers. That’s because their employers may not classify those workers as “employees,” or because they don’t meet the minimum income requirements for the program in their state. And many eligible workers are encountering difficulty just signing up for benefits, given the unprecedented surge in demand on these systems.

For these reasons, local leaders will need to step up to perform outreach to vulnerable workers in their communities and help them connect to both forthcoming federal assistance and locally provided emergency assistance that can help them pay bills in the meantime. Communities around the country have established emergency aid funds for this purpose, although many are already straining under the weight of local demand.

How long vulnerable workers remain sidelined depends on how successful our society is at limiting the spread of the coronavirus. As they take measures to protect public health and await further assistance from Washington, local leaders must do everything they can to ensure that workers most affected by this crisis can provide for themselves and their families until the disaster abates.