U.S. Industries Are Taking A Massive Toll During The Coronavirus Pandemic

May 8, 2020
Originally published on May 8, 2020 8:12 pm
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AILSA CHANG, HOST:

They make cars. They make cocktails. They clean hotel rooms, and they clean your teeth. They are the more than 20 million people who lost their jobs in April. New numbers out today bumped the jobless rate up to 14.7%. That's the worst rate since 1940, and no industry went untouched. For more on where the economic knife cut deepest, we are now joined by some of the reporters who cover these industries. NPR's Alina Selyukh covers retail and restaurants. Camila Domonoske covers the auto industry and oil and gas for NPR. And Will Stone has been covering health care for NPR from Seattle.

Welcome to all three of you.

ALINA SELYUKH, BYLINE: Hi.

CAMILA DOMONOSKE, BYLINE: Hello.

WILL STONE, BYLINE: Hi.

CHANG: Alina, let's start with you. The lockdowns, I mean, they forced so many restaurants, so many bars, travel destinations to shut down. We know about that. But today we got a read on just how bad those closures have been for workers. Can you just give us a quick snapshot?

SELYUKH: Yeah, so leisure and hospitality accounted for nearly half of all the jobs lost last month. That's nearly 8 million. And of those, almost three-quarters of job losses were at restaurants and bars. They lost 5 1/2 million jobs. Many of these places do hope to start reopening as restrictions begin lifting, but what will that look like? People may want to sit very far apart or just outside. If the dining area is at half capacity, that may mean fewer workers and maybe not enough business to stay afloat, which is to say lots of these places will simply not make it.

CHANG: And what about retail? What did you see?

SELYUKH: In retail, it's a story of two economies, one that's booming and one that's flagging. On the one hand, you've got malls and lots of stores just closed for weeks. And all in all, more than 2 million retail jobs were cut or furloughed. The biggest hit fell on stores selling clothes and accessories. You've got department stores and chains that went into the pandemic already struggling. They're now wobbling on very weak knees. That escalated in the first two major bankruptcies this week by J.Crew and Neiman Marcus with potentially more on the way; particularly watching the department store chain J.C. Penney.

CHANG: You call this the story of two economies. What's the booming economy in retail?

SELYUKH: Right. That's the other side with the central retail companies and online companies like grocery, pharmacies, delivery. They're facing a crush of demand. They're going on massive hiring sprees. For example, my colleague Danielle Kurtzleben talked to Theodore Johnson. He's a massage therapist from Texas whose work at a hotel dried up during the pandemic, so now he fills boxes at an Amazon warehouse.

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THEODORE JOHNSON: You know, the uncertainty is just pretty real. So I just jumped on the job that's, like, 45 minutes away overnight. And it's just like kind of brutal. You're doing squats every night for 10 hours and sweating.

SELYUKH: Amazon and Walmart together are hiring almost 400,000 such new workers. CVS, Walgreens, Rite Aid are hiring tens of thousands more.

CHANG: Camila, let's bring you in now. I mean, what about furloughs or people who lost their jobs temporarily? Are they being counted in these numbers out today?

DOMONOSKE: Yes, at least some of them are. We know more than 18 million people in this jobs report said they're out of work but that they expect to go back to their jobs. And one question is whether they're right, whether their jobs will still be there once it's safe for them to go back to them. In some cases, that's not clear. In other cases, people are returning to their jobs already. You can look at the auto industry, which has been hit very hard. At least 380,000 car manufacturing jobs were lost between March and April. But plants are starting to reopen right now. And with the disease still circulating, that means using masks and adding spacing in lines, doing mandatory temperature checks, things to try to make it a little safer to open back up.

CHANG: Well, you not only cover autos; you also cover the oil and gas industry. And I'm curious - what kinds of job losses are we seeing in that industry?

DOMONOSKE: Yeah, prices have completely collapsed, which has meant a huge reduction in the drilling of new wells. I spoke to Carrie Belcher (ph), who was a geologist for an oil and gas company. She lost her job in March. And she's thinking about maybe switching careers completely because prospects look so dim for a job in her field. Here's what she told me.

CARRIE BELCHER: Yeah. I'm just kind of a little lost, I guess you could say. I don't see it happening for at least a year just because the demand for oil won't be there for a while.

DOMONOSKE: And meanwhile, she hasn't gotten an unemployment check from Texas yet. And she's been out of work for some seven weeks.

CHANG: Wow. That sounds really stressful. OK. Will Stone, we're going to bring you in now. You cover the health care industry. And what's interesting here is, you know, not long ago, there were concerns the U.S. wouldn't have enough health care workers to handle all of the COVID-19 patients. But today we saw that 1.4 million health care workers were laid off in April, which seems totally counterintuitive.

STONE: The biggest reason is that, aside from coronavirus cases, there are just not enough patients. Many doctor and dental offices are closed. Lots of surgeries, what we call elective operations, were put on hold back in March. And even for things that shouldn't stop, like heart attacks and strokes, there are fewer of those patients. We think people are afraid to come to emergency rooms. And you put all of that together in hospitals, clinics and doctor's offices, they are all losing money - laying off workers, cutting hours - even nurses that were working on the frontlines taking care of COVID patients just a few weeks ago.

CHANG: Wow, at a time when nurses and other hospital workers are being hailed as heroes, people are sending food to hospitals. They're dropping off masks. I mean, what are these nurses saying to you?

STONE: They say it's upsetting and demoralizing. I spoke to Michelle Sweeney (ph). She's a nurse in Massachusetts who takes care of elderly people with chronic health problems. She was really busy. And then all of a sudden three weeks ago, she was furloughed.

MICHELLE SWEENEY: I mean, nursing is who you are. I grew up - my mother was a nurse. To me, that - it's like a slap in the face. And I get there's a financial picture that - we all got that, but it's very emotional. I don't know how to say it other than that. And I don't want to get emotional, but it is.

STONE: And you may have heard of nurses who traveled to New York City to help out with the surge there. Again, many were praised for pitching in, for their courage, but they also did that because there isn't work in other parts of the country. Now, some don't even know if they'll have a job to go home to.

CHANG: All right. That's health care reporter Will Stone in Seattle as well as NPR's Camila Domonoske and NPR's Alina Selyukh.

Thanks to all three of you.

DOMONOSKE: Yeah. Thank you.

STONE: Thank you.

SELYUKH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.