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New Unemployment Numbers Show NYC Has Lost Two-Thirds of Its Food Jobs

Most remained out of work by the end of May, a datapoint that will likely influence the debate over federal aid

A black-and-white photo of Nix’s dining room
A black-and-white photo of Nix’s dining room
Nick Solares/Eater

Though more restaurants have reopened since the beginning of the pandemic, new data shows that hundreds of thousands of New York City hospitality workers remained unemployed through the end of May — with only 14,000 or so jobs having returned since the depths of the shutdown. The numbers will surely strengthen the case for more federal relief for those out of work, or for those who might get laid off again if a second wave of COVID-19 infections pop up this fall.

Food and drinking places shed at least 234,000 jobs during the shutdown in the five boroughs, or nearly half a million jobs throughout the state, according to data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on June 19.

Just 105,000 city hospitality staffers were still working in May, when the metropolitan area had not yet reached the first phase of reopening — up from 91,000 in April. That’s just a third of the jobs that were available in February. It’s also the lowest level of hospitality industry employment since before December of 1992, constituting a temporary erasure of nearly 30 years worth of jobs growth.

This will likely be the last detailed report of the New York hospitality industry before Congress decides whether to reauthorize enhanced pandemic unemployment assistance, a massive social welfare program that pays out $600 per week to out-of-work individuals, on top of state unemployment benefits.

A separate analysis of citywide data by comptroller Scott Stringer, who found that vulnerable groups suffered the most during the COVID-crisis, concluded that extending the federal aid program would be “imperative.” The U.S. House of Representatives has already done just that, reauthorizing the payouts through January, but Republicans, who control the Senate, oppose that legislation in its current form.

Those 105,000 remaining hospitality jobs include those working in sit-down restaurants, bars, and quick-service venues. A separate statistic for full-service restaurants fell even more precipitously, having dropped from 169,000 in February to just over 23,000 in April. It has since rebounded to 38,400. The pandemic was particularly tough to full-service restaurants, whose dining rooms likely won’t open until mid-July at the earliest.

These grim numbers jibe with the larger jobless picture in New York City, where overall unemployment increased to 18.3 percent in May — well above the already high federal rate of 13.3 percent. Foreign-born and BIPOC workers saw even higher jobless rates, approaching Great Depression levels. Asian unemployment in New York, as has been previously reported, rose the highest, jumping from 3.4 percent in February to 25.6 percent in May, according to Stringer, citing Current Population Survey data. Unemployment was almost equally stratospheric for Hispanics, at 25.1 percent, and for Black people, at 23.5 percent.

Two particular groups that are typically well-represented in the hospitality industry exhibited the worst overall jobless figures. Unemployment for foreign-born Hispanics was an astounding 30.8 percent in May, while youth unemployment, for individuals between the ages of 16 and 25, hit 35.2 percent. By comparison, white unemployment was 11.8 percent.

If the $600 pandemic benefits end, it’s likely that tens of thousands of hospitality employees will have to rely on austere state benefits. New York wage data show that the average city hospitality worker would be eligible for only $334 per week, or $1,336 per month, just a few hundred dollars above the poverty wage. Indeed, a recent Columbia University study suggested that the federal stimulus was a significant reason that poverty rates haven’t increased across the U.S., despite historic jobless numbers.

Certain restaurant staffers won’t be eligible for any aid at all. Undocumented workers, who make up a vital portion of the hospitality workforce, don’t qualify for either state or federal unemployment benefits. In fact, if there’s a single undocumented worker in a household, the entire family is barred from receiving the $600 pandemic checks.

Federal June unemployment numbers — which actually count undocumented workers even though they remain ineligible for aid — will be released on July 2. Congress is set to debate pandemic benefits later that month.

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