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Long-term Unemployment Remains High Despite American Jobs Returning


American jobs are starting to come back, as businesses reopen and vaccinations speed up. But there are millions of people who lost their jobs at the beginning of the pandemic and who are still unemployed. NPR's Sam Gringlas reports.

SAM GRINGLAS, BYLINE: Ask Bud Johnson what he liked about his job driving a transit bus at the University of Delaware, and he uses a single word.

BUD JOHNSON: Everything. The sights are great. The people I work for are great. And it's just a pleasant atmosphere.

GRINGLAS: But he hasn't had that in almost a year now. He got laid off when classes went virtual.

JOHNSON: I eat two meals a day (laughter), instead of three. I do go to the food pantry and get food from them.

GRINGLAS: Johnson hasn't been called back yet or been told when or if that will happen.

JOHNSON: I am looking forward to coming back. It's a great job.

GRINGLAS: In January, 4 million people had been unemployed for six months or more. It's what economists call long-term unemployment. And we haven't seen levels this high since the Great Recession. That worries economist Bill Spriggs. He says many employers stigmatize people who haven't worked in months. The longer someone's without a job, the harder it is to find a new one.

WILLIAM SPRIGGS: So rather than the typical way you think of a line working - you show up at the movie theater, I'm first in line, I've been here, I'm next - it works in the opposite. The people who are newly unemployed get the first in line.

GRINGLAS: And what's worse, this will likely hit vulnerable workers even harder. Women and people of color have lost the most jobs during the pandemic. They already tend to be paid less, and so long-term unemployment can scar their earnings permanently. A McKinsey study predicted it could also take two years longer for them to recover those jobs. Here's co-author Kweilin Ellingrud.

KWEILIN ELLINGRUD: The progress we see on closing the gender gap - even take COVID out of the picture - is so slow. And so then you pause that slow glacial progress and you make negative progress - it was deeply discouraging.

GRINGLAS: There's another worry, too. What if certain jobs don't ever come back? How people work and live has been changing dramatically during the pandemic, and that's shaken up all kinds of jobs. One of the biggest shifts has been more people working from home. That's had ripple effects for Gloria Espinosa (ph). Until last April, she cleaned offices in San Francisco.

GLORIA ESPINOSA: (Through interpreter) We got a visit from our supervisor. He gathered us all on the parking lot, and he talked to us and tell us that we were going to be laid off. I was wondering, God, why us? It was like receiving a bucket of cold water. That's the way I felt.

GRINGLAS: A year later, the employees whose workspaces she once cleaned are still remote, and so Espinosa is still unemployed. She knows there's no guarantee, but she feels confident she'll be called back to her old job when offices reopen.

ESPINOSA: (Through interpreter) I think that, actually, there's going to be probably the need of additional workers because we are going to have to make sure that we can provide that extra clean space that the workers deserve.

GRINGLAS: On the other end of California, Keri Belisle wonders what her work will look like in the future. She's been a tour guide for 35 years.


KERI BELISLE: Here we are in La Hoya. Hey, how's my Minnesota group liking this?

GRINGLAS: Since travel grinded to a halt last spring, Belisle has tried to keep busy, even organizing virtual tours.


BELISLE: ...To join me Tuesday at 2 for my virtual presentation about...

GRINGLAS: But this week she finally began a new full-time job...

BELISLE: Everything looks good here.

GRINGLAS: ...At a vaccine clinic in San Diego.

BELISLE: It's just nice to chitchat with people and especially people that are getting vaccinated because they're all so happy and excited.

GRINGLAS: Belisle knows this new job won't be permanent. She's hopeful tour buses will start rolling again and she can go back to work in the field she's loved for so many years.

Sam Gringlas, NPR News.


Sam Gringlas is a journalist at NPR's All Things Considered. In 2020, he helped cover the presidential election with NPR's Washington Desk and has also reported for NPR's business desk covering the workforce. He's produced and reported with NPR from across the country, as well as China and Mexico, covering topics like politics, trade, the environment, immigration and breaking news. He started as an intern at All Things Considered after graduating with a public policy degree from the University of Michigan, where he was the managing news editor at The Michigan Daily. He's a native Michigander.