Millions of workers remain underemployed as virus surges prompt business closures

A man wearing a face mask walks past a sign "Now Hiring" in front of a store amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 14, 2020 in Arlington, Virginia.
Olivier Douliery | AFP | Getty Images

Jenifer Rosenberg recalls losing 30 pounds within several weeks following the 9/11 attacks in New York City. At the time, Rosenberg worked in tourism in the city and was severely impacted by the drop in travel following the event. She lost work, fell behind on bills, racked up $50,000 in credit card debt and declared bankruptcy. It took five years until international travel to New York returned to pre-9/11 levels, and several more for Rosenberg to claw her way out of financial rock bottom.

Today Rosenberg still works in tourism, an industry once again upended due to the coronavirus pandemic. She began to hear about Covid-19 spreading abroad in January and spent months limiting her expenses, saving more money and preparing for a financial downturn. Unlike the last time, Rosenberg also has spent years living below her means without the weight of credit card debt or the student loans she paid off.

As she predicted, Rosenberg was furloughed from her job at the Croatian National Tourist Board in April. She joined tens of millions of Americans filing new unemployment claims and began a dogged search in one of the worst job markets in decades.

Today, nine months since the coronavirus pandemic upended the U.S. health care system and the economy, more than 21 million Americans are receiving jobless benefits. One in three unemployed individuals has been out of work for six months or longer. The U.S. still has not recovered 10 million jobs lost to the coronavirus-induced recession.

For those fortunate enough to be earning some income during these months, like Rosenberg, many are still underemployed, or working fewer hours and earning less money than they did before the pandemic shock. According to the latest jobs report, the number of people employed part-time for economic reasons, but would rather be working full-time, increased to 6.7 million in October after declining for five months.

Underemployment during the pandemic

Since she was furloughed, Rosenberg has strung together a few temporary jobs, though the money she's made is "not even close" to what she earned at her previous job, she tells CNBC Make It.

For two months in the spring, she filled in and acted as an assistant to a friend who works in publishing. She worked a few paid hours for a political campaign during the New York primaries in June. Her longest stretch of work came when she worked as a door-to-door Census taker during the summer through the end of October.

But now, with the end of her Pandemic Unemployment Assistance looming (all remaining unemployment enhancements from the CARES Act expire in December), not to mention surging virus cases that are prompting business closures to contain the virus, she's again applying for every type of job she comes across in hopes that she gets something — "anything that I am remotely qualified for."

"I'm more than happy to go out to work in an office or store, basically in any available job," Rosenberg says. She searches on every job board she can think of, from Indeed to LinkedIn to a temp agency she used to work for, as well as for holiday retail jobs in her area. However, "even though I'm more than willing to work there, I think they might not want to hire someone with a master's degree to stock shelves or work the register. But I think a job is a job. And I'd rather be working than taking unemployment."

Surging Covid-19 cases could stall job recovery

This year's holiday hiring spree has barely made a dent in the employment outlook. U.S. companies posted nearly 20% fewer holiday season positions in September and October this year than during those months in 2019, according to online jobs marketplace ZipRecruiter.

There remain roughly two unemployed individuals for every job opening available.

"There just aren't that many holiday jobs," Rosenberg says. And as Covid-19 cases surge across the country, numbers are also ticking up in New York, an epicenter of the virus in the spring. Rosenberg recently had two interviews lined up, but both were canceled because the businesses were preparing for more shutdowns. "With a second wave hitting New York, my chances of getting another job are slim to none," she adds. "I probably won't get back to work until the crisis is over, hopefully by February or March."

She says recent news of vaccine developments give her hope that travel may show signs of recovery by early 2021, and she hopes to return to her previous job by then, though she has not heard from her former employer about resuming operations any time soon.

However, "I'm not putting all my eggs in that basket," Rosenberg says. She is currently working on boosting her Excel skills so she can prove her proficiency in an online assessment and use it to apply to more data entry and administrative jobs. She's not giving up on a future back in tourism and is studying to become a licensed tour guide and practicing her foreign language skills.

With the help of her savings and enhanced unemployment benefits during the summer, Rosenberg has been able to continue to afford her rent, groceries and other essential living expenses. She splits an apartment with a roommate, who works from home teaching English as a second language online.

"I'm in a lot better shape than some people living paycheck to paycheck. So many more people are in worse conditions than I am," Rosenberg says. She worries for the millions of others out of work or underemployed, and their families, who are feeling the financial toll of the of pandemic more acutely: "It's going to reverberate for months to come."

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