On Friday morning, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics published preliminary data for the month of April, and its findings were unspeakably grim. During the month of April, the nationwide unemployment rate increased to 14.7 percent, which is the highest it has been since the Great Depression in the early 1920s. The number of unemployed workers jumped from 15.9 million in March to 23.1 million in April, which is now the worst single-month job loss on record.
"The changes in these measures reflect the effects of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic and efforts to contain it," the department wrote. "Employment fell sharply in all major industry sectors, with particularly heavy job losses in leisure and hospitality."
Employment in leisure and hospitality, which includes restaurants, bars, hotels, and entertainment and recreation facilities fell by 47 percent last month, losing 7.7 million jobs. The majority of those jobs—5.5 million of them—were in "food service and drinking places." According to Restaurant Business, the restaurant industry has lost half of its workforce since March, with employment levels falling to a number that hasn't been seen since the spring of 1989.
"The numbers show the first true picture of the devastation that hit the industry," the outlet said. "About one in four jobs lost during those two months was at a restaurant." There are approximately 6.4 million people who are still employed in the restaurant industry, compared to 12 million in April 2019.
The job losses have hit almost every kind of eatery. In mid-April, the National Restaurant Association (NRA) surveyed more than 65,000 restaurant operators, and 88 percent of them said that they had either laid off or furloughed workers since mid-March. On average, they retained only 17 percent of their pre-pandemic staff—while 41 percent of the respondents said that they'd had to let every single employee go.
Although some restaurants have started to slowly rehire furloughed workers, the majority of those job losses could be permanent. In the NRA's most recent monthly Restaurant Industry Tracking Survey, 63% of the restaurant operators who responded said that they expected that their staffing levels would be lower in six months than they were during the same period last year. Fourteen percent of respondents were optimistic, reporting that they believe their number of employees will be higher in six months than they were last year.
The responses were equally pessimistic about sales volume in six months, with 74 percent of respondents predicting that their sales will still be down in six months, compared with last year. (Those who operate fast-food restaurants were, perhaps unsurprisingly, the most optimistic about customers returning.)
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics will release its next report on Friday, June 5.