The COVID-19 pandemic has caused tremendous challenges for West Virginia workers, from unsafe working conditions to unprecedented job losses. While some areas of West Virginia’s economy are recovering, the job market is far from pre-pandemic levels and employment gains have not been equally distributed. Further, increasing COVID-19 cases remain a threat to workers’ health and the economy.
At the beginning of the pandemic, West Virginia lost an unprecedented 101,000 jobs as total nonfarm employment dropped from 718,700 in February 2020 to 617,700 in April 2020. While the state has seen relatively steady job growth in recent months, recovering 72 percent of jobs lost in March and April 2020, a substantial jobs gap remains. As of August 2021, West Virginia had nearly 29,000 fewer jobs than before the pandemic. Job growth also slowed in August in conjunction with the recent surge in COVID-19 cases. While the full impact of the “delta surge” remains to be seen, it is likely that record-setting numbers of cases and hospitalizations will heighten concerns about health and safety among both workers and consumers and could lead to the loss of recent gains in employment.
During the height of the pandemic, service-providing industries involving high levels of interaction among people faced disproportionate job losses. In West Virginia, leisure and hospitality jobs fell from 75,100 jobs in February 2020 to 38,800 jobs in April 2020, nearly a 50 percent loss. While the industry has seen substantial job growth in recent months, employment in leisure and hospitality remains nearly 10 percent below pre-pandemic levels. Of note, this industry — and other frontline industries — includes a disproportionately large share of women, people of color, young adults, and low-paid workers.
West Virginia’s unemployment rate spiked from 5.1 percent in February 2020 to 15.6 percent in April 2020. Since then, the unemployment rate has fallen back to pre-pandemic levels, and stood at 4.8 percent in August 2021. However, the state’s labor force has shrunk substantially during the pandemic. 38,500 workers left the labor force in April 2020, and while some returned in the following months, West Virginia’s labor force has begun to decline again, losing 3,500 workers during the past four months. Overall, the state’s labor force is down 14,000 workers since February 2020. A more complete, realistic unemployment rate would take into account those who have left and not returned to the labor force. Including those workers, West Virginia’s unemployment rate in August 2021 would be 6.6 percent, still well above its pre-pandemic rate.
Black and women workers are overrepresented in the industries most affected by the pandemic, and economic recovery has been slower for these populations nationwide and in West Virginia. While the national unemployment rate in August 2021 was 4.6 percent for white men and 4.4 percent for white women, unemployment rates were nearly twice that for Black men and women, at 9.4 percent and 8.3 percent respectively. Overall, the unemployment rate for Black workers in August 2021 was 8.8 percent, compared to 4.5 percent for white workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted and reinforced the importance of worker protections, good quality jobs, and a strong safety net. Even before the pandemic, wages had been stagnant for all but the top wage earners in the state, and job growth was weak. As the economy recovers, too many West Virginia workers continue to earn substandard wages, face unsafe working conditions, and lack access to adequate sick days and paid leave. An inclusive pandemic recovery will require targeted investments and policies that support the health and economic security of all West Virginians.
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