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The U.S. Labor Market during the Beginning of the Pandemic Recession

Tomaz Cajner, Leland D. Crane, Ryan A. Decker, John Grigsby, Adrian Hamins-Puertolas, Erik Hurst, Christopher Kurz, Ahu Yildirmaz

NBER Working Paper No. 27159
Issued in May 2020
NBER Program(s):Economic Fluctuations and Growth, Labor Studies

Using weekly, anonymized administrative payroll data from the largest U.S. payroll processing company, we measure the deterioration of the U.S. labor market during the first two months of the global COVID-19 pandemic. We find that U.S. private-sector employment contracted by about 22 percent between mid-February and mid-April. Businesses suspending operations---perhaps temporarily---account for a significant share of employment losses, particularly among smaller businesses. Hours worked for continuing workers fell by 4.5 percent. We highlight large differences in employment declines by industry, business size, state of residence, and demographic group. Workers in the bottom quintile of the wage distribution experienced a 35 percent employment decline while those in the top quintile experienced only a 9 percent decline. Large differences across the wage distribution persist even after conditioning on worker age, business industry, business size, and worker location. As a result, average base wages increased by over 5 percent, though this increase arose entirely through a composition effect. Overall, we document that the speed and magnitude of labor market deterioration during the early parts of the pandemic were unprecedented in the postwar period, particularly for the bottom of the earnings distribution.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w27159

 
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