The U.S. health-care industry wasn’t immune to the devastating job losses caused by the coronavirus pandemic last month.
Even as health-care workers battled covid-19 in emergency rooms and intensive-care units across the country, the industry saw 1.4 million jobs vanish in April, the Labor Department reported on Friday. That equates to about one of every 12 health-care jobs.
The largest declines were in outpatient settings such as dental offices, where more than half a million jobs disappeared — roughly half of that work force. As the virus has spread, many medical offices that deliver routine or elective care have closed as part of social-distancing measures to contain the outbreak.
But even providers treating patients vulnerable to the virus weren’t spared. Hospitals shed 135,000 workers, and nursing and residential care payrolls fell by 113,000. Both numbers represent about a 3% decline from a month earlier.
Employment in diagnostic labs shrank by 11%, or 31,000 jobs, even as the nation struggled to increase the number of coronavirus tests available. Home-health payrolls declined by 6%, or 94,000 jobs.
The drop-off in demand for health care may persist as long as the virus remains a threat.
“There’s a natural cautiousness and reluctance of seniors as well as other people who have comorbid conditions to expose themselves to Covid,” said Dan Mendelson, founder of consultant Avalere Health and an operating partner at Welsh, Carson, Anderson & Stowe.
Those groups are both the heaviest users of health care and at the most vulnerable to covid-19. The job losses indicate that health-care organizations aren’t expecting a quick return to business as usual.
“If they think that there’s just going to be a quick rebound and everyone’s going to come back, then they don’t want to and shouldn’t lay off their staff,” Mendelson said.
Counting the wider category of social assistance and health care, the 2.1 million jobs lost almost matches the damage in the retail industry. The April decline follows a loss of 43,000 health-care jobs in March. In the middle of March, hospitals and providers canceled weeks of scheduled surgeries and other appointments under orders from states to reduce face-to-face interactions and conserve hospital capacity.
American health care has historically been resilient to job losses even in bad economic times. During the Great Recession and months that followed, the sector added 600,000 workers even as the broader economy lost 8.5 million. In the last 30 years, the health-care workforce doubled to 16 million, growing more than twice as fast as non-farm payrolls.
Congress allocated $175 billion in grants to help health-care providers make up for lost revenue and handle coronavirus-related costs. That money began flowing in mid-April. It’s unclear whether that will blunt the industry’s job losses the months ahead.