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Health jobs plummeted in March despite rising need for healthcare workers

Dive Brief:

  • Despite overwhelming need for healthcare workers as the coronavirus continues to spread across the U.S., healthcare employment dropped by 43,000 in March, reversing a decade of job growth in the sector.
  • Dentist’s offices shed 17,000 jobs, doctor’s offices saw a loss of 12,000 jobs and other healthcare practitioners lost 7,000 jobs, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Friday morning. Over the previous year, healthcare employment had grown by 374,000 jobs.
  • Overall, roughly 701,000 Americans lost their jobs and the unemployment ​rate rose nearly a full percentage point to 4.4% — the largest over-the-month increase in the rate since January 1975. The data only reflects the first half of March, however, so doesn’t capture the full extent of the collapsing job market as several governors ordered nonessential businesses to close in the latter half of the month.

Dive Insight:

The Labor Department report is based on surveys about the pay period including the 12th day of the month, meaning if Americans worked that week they count as employed, even if they lost their job the week after. Because of this, the official tally of jobs for March is a snapshot of the job market in the first half of the month, when the full extent of the pandemic in the U.S. was just beginning to take shape.

“March data from the establishment and household surveys broadly reflect some of the early effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on the labor market,” the bureau wrote in a statement accompanying the report. “We cannot precisely quantify the effects of the pandemic on the job market in March. However, it is clear that the decrease in employment and hours and the increase in unemployment can be ascribed to effects of the illness and efforts to contain the virus.”

Job losses in the healthcare sector are dwarfed by hits to the leisure and hospitality industries, which accounted for roughly two-thirds of the overall drop, mainly in restaurants and bars forced to shutter their doors to slow the community spread of the virus.

But medical workers are being laid off and furloughed in some areas even as demand is steadily increasing for their services as hospitals and doctor’s offices prepare for an influx of COVID-19 patients. Hospitals are scrambling to hire temporary staff, especially nurses, and telehealth vendors are aggressively recruiting doctors to help them meet the high volume of virtual care visits.

At the same time, providers — especially small, rural facilities and independent primary care practices — are facing financial insolvency as many have halted lucrative elective procedures or stopped seeing patients in-office altogether to try and preserve staff and resources to combat COVID-19. Some have had to lay off valuable staff to keep themselves afloat.

A record 6.65 million Americans filed for unemployment benefits over the week ending March 27. About 3.3 million people filed for unemployment the week before.

An estimated 3.5 million Americans likely lost their health insurance over the past two weeks, according to an Economic Policy Institutes analysis. That’s more than one-third of the total people who filed for unemployment over that time.

The Trump administration is weighing its options to help the some 30 million uninsured Americans, including cash payments and potentially expanding Medicaid to a greater swath of the lower to middle class.

“I think it is a very fair question, though, and it is something we are really going to look at because it doesn’t seem fair,” President Donald Trump said regarding further Medicaid expansion at the White House Task Force coronavirus briefing Thursday night.

However, the federal government still refuses to defend the Affordable Care Act against a Republican-state led lawsuit seeking to find it unconstitutional, which could threaten Medicaid expansion in 37 states.

Trump has also declined to open a special enrollment period for individual insurance on Healthcare.gov amid pleas by Democrats to do so. But losing job-based coverage does count as a qualifying life event, meaning a recently unemployed individual could enroll in ACA coverage despite it being the middle of the plan year.

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