Feb 17, 2021 - Economy

The perils of prolonged unemployment

Office items in box

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Nearly 4 million Americans have been unemployed for 27 weeks or longer — trapped in a vicious cycle that makes it harder to get back to work.

The big picture: Long-term unemployment during a pandemic is a double whammy. Millions are experiencing food and housing insecurity and lack health care when they need it most.

What's happening: "The troubling amount of long-term unemployment and its continuing rise is dangerous for the U.S. labor market," says Nick Bunker, an economist at the jobs site Indeed. "A fast labor market recovery will help alleviate these concerns, but that bounce back is still a ways away and dependent on controlling the coronavirus."

  • The number of Americans experiencing long-term unemployment — around 4 million — is far from the worst of the Great Recession, when long-term unemployment reached 7 million.
  • But it's remarkable considering where the U.S. was before the pandemic. The long-term unemployment rate is 2.5%, which is comparable to the 3.5% overall unemployment rate in January 2020, Bunker notes.

Why it matters: Studies have shown that long-term unemployment hurts workers' physical and mental health, reports Bloomberg. And the longer someone is unemployed, the harder it is for that person to get another job — let alone another job at the same pay level.

Job-seeking is even more exhausting during a pandemic, says Tim Classen, an economist at the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University in Chicago.

  • To start, there are fewer jobs out there than there are unemployed people.
  • On top of that, people may be attempting to juggle job-hunting with parenting kids who are learning remotely.
  • Not everyone is comfortable interviewing over video calls, and not everyone has the broadband access required to even attend those interviews.

"The fluctuations in uncertainty play into this, too," Classen says. Millions of restaurant workers, flight attendants, retail workers and more aren't sure when the pandemic will end — or if their employers will even survive it.

There's a bit of a silver lining, though.

  • While losing a job is a traumatic event and can really chip away at someone's sense of self-worth, it can also be easier to bear if millions are going through the same thing. Job loss doesn't feel as personal in a pandemic, says Classen.
  • "There’s a sense of, 'Yeah, I’m depressed, and I’ve lost my job, but I’m not alone in my suffering,'" he says. "Maybe in some way that tempers it."
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