COVID-19 pandemic hit health care employment less than other sectors

Changes in unemployment rates tied to occupational income

The COVID-19 pandemic has hurt overall health care employment less than other parts of the economy, but it still affected some health care-related occupations and employee demographic groups more than others.

A newly-published research letter in JAMA uses government employment data to compare pre-pandemic and pandemic unemployment levels among professional and demographic groups within the health care sector, and between health care and other parts of the economy.

The authors found that between January 2015 and the start of the pandemic in March 2020, unemployment among health care workers (HCWs) increased by about 39%, from 2.28% to 3.18%. Among non-health care workers, the increase was about 60%, from 3.82% to 6.13%. of health care workers (HCWs) reported being unemployed, compared with 3.18% between April 2020 and April 2022.

Lower-income HCW occupations saw the biggest upticks in reported unemployment. Among therapists and technicians the unemployment rate more than doubled, from 1.25% to 2.95%. Physician assistants saw an increase of 86% (from .57% to 1.06%) while for those categorized as “other health care workers” the increase was 46% (2.21 to 3.23%) and for nurses it was 39% (1.18% too 1.64%). In contrast, the unemployment rate for physicians remained steady at .39%.

In terms of race and demography, the largest jump in unemployment—57%--was among those categorized as “other.” That was followed by non-Hispanic whites (44%), Hispanics (32%) and non-Hispanic Blacks (26%).

The authors say that the differences in unemployment increases among HCW categories may be due to the way emergency funding was distributed among health care organizations and which types of services those organizations prioritized. Their findings are relevant, they say, because “fewer job opportunities in health care have implications for the quality of care delivery, HCW satisfaction, and patient outcomes.”

The research letter “Changes in Unemployment Among Health Care Workers Following the COVID-19 Pandemic” was published online September 19 in JAMA.