Just how bad are the April employment figures going to be?
We know they will be awful. After all, the number of people filing new claims for unemployment insurance was in the millions for the seventh straight week last week, the Labor Department announced Thursday. But it is the monthly jobs report — showing job creation or losses, and the unemployment rate — that investors and the news media generally scrutinize for evidence of how the economy is evolving.
When released Friday morning, the April numbers will show exactly how stunning the American economy’s plunge has been. It will be hard to find words to capture what those tables of figures will show.
That jobs report, from November 2008, indicated that employers had cut 533,000 jobs. Analysts expect the April 2020 job losses to be 41 times worse.
Many people mark time with birthdays, or the turning of the seasons. For me, it has been the monthly jobs report. For the last 13 years, at 8:30 a.m. Eastern on either the first or second Friday of the month, I’ve awaited the latest numbers and tried to shed light on whether employers are adding jobs or cutting them; what they are paying their workers; and how many people are seeking a job but can’t find one.
The official name of the document is the Employment Situation Summary, and the most recent installment ran to 41 pages. But if you know which tables to jump to first, and are part of a loosely formed group of nerds on Twitter, you can parse the thing for interesting insights within 15 or 20 minutes.
Most of the time, it’s fun, if you’re into that sort of thing. I’ve participated in the jobs day conversation while on my honeymoon (by agreement with my wife, I could tweet about it but not file an article for The Times), and from a rooftop pool in Athens (where, after my long week of reporting on the Greek debt crisis, a bartender let me plug my laptop into the outlet reserved for his blender).
There will be nothing fun about Friday’s report. It’s hard to even fathom what we’re going to learn, or what kinds of words can capture the human pain beneath the eye-popping numbers.
If the consensus forecast by analysts — that employers will cut 22 million jobs from their payrolls — turns out to be correct, 10 years’ worth of job growth will have been wiped out in a single month.
The expansion after the last recession was late and slow in ways that were destructive to millions of people’s lives. But America had finally recovered.
And now, in a single month, a decade’s worth of progress — measured, in my case, by waking up early on 120 or so Friday mornings and analyzing tables that showed gradual, consistent hiring — has vanished.
The numbers may seem dry and impersonal, but beneath them are the individual and distinctive stories of millions of people.
That 3.5 percent unemployment rate in February, before the pandemic spread through the United States, was much more than a statistic. It showed how economic conditions were shifting the power dynamic between American labor and business.
With a labor market that tight, job seekers were gaining the ability to become more choosy — to walk away from an employer offering paltry wages, bad hours or an abusive boss. Employers had to take chances on employees they might once have rejected out of hand, like those who needed extra training, were disabled or had been in prison.
The employment situation summary at the start of this year was the best it had been in the 13 years I have obsessively tracked these numbers, and a lot of good things were starting to happen for a lot of people as a result. And now, it’s gone.
Another dispiriting wrinkle: The data will be far less useful than usual. The whole point of scrutinizing the jobs report is to get a close-to-real-time window into whether the economy is getting better or worse, and how policymakers ought to calibrate policy to try to help things along.
But this is a time when fine-tuning won’t matter. There is no sense in which the exact details of the new numbers — whether the economy shed 20 million jobs or 22 million or 25 million — will give useful information about how policy can make things better.
Policymakers in Congress and the Federal Reserve have already taken extraordinary actions to try to limit the economic pain of the pandemic, and the new data will merely show that their work is far from done. Additionally, much of what would help the economy isn’t the province of economic policy at all. It involves public health and finding ways to enable the economy to return to some semblance of normal without corresponding mass illness and death.
We should despair for the millions of Americans who are without work, the potentially long-lasting damage to their families and to the nation’s productive potential.
I, and the rest of the jobs report nerds, will dutifully analyze and do our best to find insight in the thick stack of numbers the Bureau of Labor Statistics issues Friday morning. But it will be with none of the giddy enthusiasm of trying to solve a puzzle; rather, it’s a moment for sorrow at what has been lost.