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Useful Stats: Impacts of the pandemic on the labor market

May 04, 2023
By: Conor Gowder

Availability of a new data tool developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that during the period surrounding the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was wide variation among the states on the ratio of unemployed persons per job opening.  Michigan peaked at 10.6 unemployed persons for each job opening, followed by Hawaii (10.3) and Nevada (10.2), far above most states, while others like D.C. (1.7) and Nebraska (2.1) and North Dakota (2.2) remained relatively unaffected. The Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) program developed by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) is a monthly survey that collects data on job openings, hirings and separations both on a national and state-level.

JOLTS’ “Unemployed persons per job opening ratio” metric measures the number of unemployed persons against the number of available jobs. A ratio of one indicates that there are exactly the same number of unemployed persons as open jobs, while a ratio above or below one indicates that the number of unemployed persons are higher (>1) or lower (<1) than the number of open jobs respectively.

The first pandemic-related activity restrictions in the U.S. occurred in mid-March 2020, with California ordering the first statewide lockdown on March 19th. From then on, the number of states restricting nonessential travel outside of homes quickly grew, with nine states by March 23rd, 21 by March 26th, 30 by March 30th and 41 by April 3rd. Ultimately, 43 of the 50 U.S. states implemented state-level orders restricting nonessential travel and activities in response to the pandemic.[1]

On a national level, the ratio of unemployed persons per job opening peaked in April 2020, the first full month after a majority of states implemented stay-at-home orders, before slowly decreasing throughout the following five months and finally stagnating from October through the end of the year at 1.6 unemployed persons per job opening.

While the national-level metric provides valuable insight, as with many metrics the impacts on a state-to-state basis are significantly more skewed. The below graphic shows the ratio of unemployed persons per job opening from January 2018 through December 2022 for every state and D.C., revealing that some states were affected very minimally, while others had much longer, sustained impacts.

Over the 5-year period of 2018-2022, Hawaii experienced the largest range in values, jumping from 0.7 in March 2020 up to 10.3 the very next month, and sustaining these high values for several months (see above chart). Michigan similarly had an extremely large change, from 1.2 in March to 10.6 in April 2020, but recovered to levels much closer to the national values faster.

On the other hand, D.C. (range of 0.9), as well as states like New Mexico (range of 1.1) and Nebraska (range of 1.5) experienced the smallest, albeit still significant, changes in the ratio of their unemployed persons for each job opening across the same time period.

The below searchable database shows the ratio of unemployed persons per job opening for every month, starting with January 2018 and ending with December 2022, for each state, along with a line chart to give a quick visualization of each individual state’s distribution individually.


[1] Click here for a breakdown of states that issued stay-at-home orders in response to the pandemic, and here for a summary of the other types of restrictions implemented by the remaining states that did not issue stay-at-home orders.

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