For coronavirus job losses, geography and education are destiny

Every state is feeling some pain, but the numbers show massive jumps in unemployment in a few states.

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By Dante Chinni

WASHINGTON — The latest week brought another set of deeply concerning unemployment numbers during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last week, 5.2 million more people filed claims, bringing the total to more than 22 million in the last month, an almost surreal spike.

But the numbers are not spread evenly throughout the country. The economic impacts so far hold stark differences along geographic, income and educational lines.

On the most basic level, location plays a huge role in the unemployment story. Every state is feeling some pain, but the numbers show massive jumps in unemployment in a few states. An NBC News analysis found five states have seen more than 19 percent of their labor forces file for unemployment since March 14: Hawaii, Michigan, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania and Nevada.

There’s a mix of challenges pushing the numbers so high in those states. Hawaii and Nevada live and die by tourism. They are the top two states in the country for the percentage of employment coming from the broad Census employment category that includes hotels and food service, two industries hammered by the virus. The rise in Michigan, the top auto-job state in the country, is likely not a surprise considering that U.S. car production essentially ceased with COVID.

The Rhode Island spike may have to do with the fact that the state is dominated by one big metro area, Providence, with few rural areas to offset any impacts. Urban areas have been hit especially hard by the virus and the state’s population is more than 90 percent urban. Pennsylvania’s jump seems to be fueled by early tough measures in the state and an economy that may have already been slowing down before the pandemic.

On the other end, there are five states where less than 7 percent of the labor force has filed for unemployment since March 14: South Dakota, West Virginia, Florida, Utah and Connecticut.

The bottom two states — South Dakota and West Virginia — share a few traits. Both are home to rural, dispersed populations and both are above the national average for agricultural employment. Utah and Connecticut stand out for other reasons. Both are above the national average for college degrees and for the percentage of jobs in broad Census categories that include information, finance and administrative positions. The kinds of jobs that may be easier to perform remotely.

Florida, which still has relatively low unemployment claims, may be important to watch in the weeks ahead. The state relies heavily on tourism, and 12 percent of its jobs are in that broad Census category, but its government was slow to adopt distancing measures. The jobs picture is likely to change, however. Last Sunday, Walt Disney World in Orlando announced it would be furloughing 43,000 employees starting April 19.

Beyond location, the varied economic effects of the pandemic can be seen in the results in the latest NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll.

People who describe themselves as upper class or well-to-do, who live in urban areas or who have a post-graduate education are less likely than others to say they have lost their jobs.

Only 7 percent of urbanites report losing employment, along with 5 percent of upper class, well-to-do people and 4 percent of those with post-grad schooling.

The numbers suggest that many of the same socioeconomic attributes that are protections during a more typical recession, particularly those involving wealth and education, are proving to be crucial parts of weathering the economic storm that has come with the pandemic, at least for now.

However, it’s significant that suburbanites (at 12 percent unemployed) are doing slightly worse than those in rural communities (11 percent), thus far anyway. It remains to be seen whether those numbers will hold as the coronavirus moves further into rural areas.

And those advantages for the wealthy and educated can be seen in another way. Those same people are more likely to have jobs that can be done from home.

Close to half of those who describe themselves as upper class or well-to-do, 44 percent, say they are now teleworking or working from home. Among middle-class respondents, 30 percent say they are teleworking or working from home. Among poor and working people, the figure drops to 21 percent.

And the differences are even greater by education. Among those with a post-graduate education, more than half (54 percent) are now teleworking/working from home. With college grads, the figure is 39 percent. For those without a degree, only 20 percent are working away from their offices.

In other words, the data suggest that some Americans simply started out in a better place in terms of being able to handle the economic uncertainty that has accompanied the coronavirus pandemic.

These are all important points to keep in mind as the COVID-19 story continues through 2020 and into the fall campaign season.

Americans from different places and living different kinds of lives are likely to see the pandemic through very different lenses. What feels like an economic headache for some may seem much more like a tumultuous and life-changing event for others.