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8 Occupations Hit Hardest by the Pandemic in 2020

The coronavirus has taken an especially steep toll on workers in these job fields

spinner image A waitress walks with a tray to a table while wearing a mask and face shield
Sarah Silbiger/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic has had a profound impact on the job market in 2020, as many businesses laid off workers due to temporary shutdowns and other companies shifted their entire to staff to remote work. The biggest job losses came in April, when the nation’s unemployment rate reached a staggering 14.7 percent, with 20.5 million people suddenly out of work. The jobless rate that month for adults age 55 and older hit 13.6 percent.

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Since that peak, the unemployment rate has slowly declined, but not all occupations have recovered equally. Recent data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows which fields had unemployment rates that were significantly higher for December 2020 than they were one year earlier. The repercussions of millions of Americans staying home to help slow the spread of the coronavirus rippled through the job market, causing high job losses in fields as diverse as petroleum extraction and dry-cleaning. And some of the areas that continue to struggle as 2020 ends — such as restaurant positions and independent contract work — are fields that typically are attractive to older workers due to their flexible hours.

Here are the eight job fields that have been hardest hit by the pandemic in 2020:

1. Leisure and hospitality jobs

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 16.7 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 5.0 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 11.7 percentage points

No surprises here. With restaurants, bars, and stadiums temporarily shut down or operating on limited capacity for most of the year, many workers at these businesses lost jobs. Still, the numbers nationwide are shocking. In December 2020, there were 1.3 million fewer workers in these fields were than there were one year earlier.

2. Support jobs for mining and oil and gas extraction

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 13.1 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 3.8 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 9.3 percentage points

Sudden and widespread shifts in demand affected these occupations in 2020. For example, with businesses temporarily closed for public health reasons, people weren’t driving as much and the demand for gas dropped in some regions. Companies in these industries responded to the uncertainties by laying off or furloughing workers in support positions. There were nearly 58,000 fewer workers in these roles in December 2020 than there were one year earlier.

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3. Travel and transportation jobs

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 8.4 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 2.6 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 5.8 percentage points

The job losses in these fields were fueled by layoffs in the airline and railroad businesses, which were hurt because fewer people felt comfortable traveling this year. There were nearly 116,500 fewer jobs in air transportation in December 2020 than there were one year earlier. Railroads shed at least 18,900 jobs during that same period. The pandemic also led to layoffs among truck drivers — a career with a fairly high percentage of older workers — because businesses that were temporarily shuttered needed fewer supplies.

4. Construction jobs

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 9.6 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 5.0 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 4.6 percentage points

The big losses in these occupations appears to be among the specialty contractors who work on nonresidential buildings. That field lost nearly 441,000 jobs between December 2019 and December 2020, due in part to a slowdown in renovations of office buildings as more companies shifted to remote work.

5. Motion picture and music industry jobs

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 6.4 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 1.9 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 4.5 percentage points

It’s hard to make blockbuster movies and TV shows when safety precautions mean you can’t have a large cast and crew on the set. Hollywood lost more than 110,000 jobs between December 2019 and December 2020.  It’s unclear when and if the film industry will recover, as California recently initiated another round of lockdowns to slow the spread of the coronavirus and many movie theaters nationwide remain closed.

6. Laundry, dry-cleaning, other personal service jobs

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 7.4 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 3.2 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 4.2 percentage points

The large increase in the number of people working from home this year led to a big drop-off in the demand for dry-cleaning and laundry services. Those occupations lost more than 228,000 jobs since December 2019.

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7. Self-employed workers

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 6.7 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 2.7 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 4.0 percentage points

While working for yourself can offer the freedom and flexibility that many older adults prefer, it also means you might face challenges finding clients during tough economic times. The pandemic may have added to the difficulties because it made people wary to meet face to face, a key part of networking for new business for many.

8. Jobs manufacturing food, clothing and other goods

  • Unemployment rate, December 2020: 5.5 percent
  • Unemployment rate, December 2019: 3.1 percent
  • Year-over-year increase: 2.4 percentage points

Manufacturing jobs often require people to work side by side, a significant hurdle when businesses want their employees to practice physical distancing. There were several COVID-19 clusters in meatpacking and poultry processing facilities earlier in the pandemic, which may have led some workers to leave the industry.

Apparel manufacturing businesses notably shed jobs. With more people working from home and also not going out at night, the need for new, stylish clothing took a dip.

Editor’s note: This article originally was published on December 17, 2020. It has been updated with more recent data.

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