WASHINGTON – In late March, Britney Ruby Miller, co-owner of a small chain of steakhouse restaurants, confidently proclaimed that once the viral outbreak had subsided, her company planned to recall all its laid-off workers.
Now? Miller would be thrilled to restore, by year’s end, three-quarters of the roughly 600 workers her company had to let go.
“I’m being realistic,” she said. “Bringing back 75% of our staff would be incredible.”
Call it realism or pessimism, but more employers are coming to a reluctant conclusion: Many of the employees they’ve had to lay off in the face of the coronavirus pandemic might not be returning to their old jobs anytime soon. Some large companies won’t have enough customers to justify it. And some small businesses won’t likely survive at all despite aid provided by the federal government.
If so, that would undercut a glimmer of hope in the brutal April jobs report the government issued Friday, in which a record-shattering 20.5 million people lost jobs: A sizable majority of the jobless — nearly 80% — characterized their loss as only temporary.
That could still turn out to be the case for some. The federal government may end up allocating significantly more financial aid for people and small businesses. And more testing for the coronavirus, not to mention an eventual vaccine or an effective drug therapy, would make more Americans comfortable returning to the restaurants, shops, airports and movie theaters they used to frequent. That, in turn, would lead companies to recall more laid-off workers.
Yet Congress remains sharply divided about additional aid, with some Republicans expressing concern about escalating federal debt. President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that “many people would like to just pause for a moment” to evaluate the impact of the government’s $2 trillion relief package approved in late March.
If most layoffs become permanent, the severe recession the economy has slid into would likely last longer, the recovery would be slower and the toll on laid-off workers would be harsher, economists say. Unemployment soared to 14.7% in April — the highest rate since the Great Depression — and analysts predict it will rise still further in May. It could remain in double-digits into next year.
“For a lot of those furloughed workers, a non-trivial number will have no job to go back to, because the company they worked for will have failed or will need fewer workers than they used to,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist who is now director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.