Robert Hesse was expecting an imminent promotion to manager of Sub Zero Ice Cream, a nitrogen ice cream shop in Ventura, Calif., when it shut down in March because of the pandemic.
“I like to work,” said Mr. Hesse, a college graduate who turns 26 on Tuesday. “Otherwise I feel like I’m useless.” But he has been reluctant to seek a new job because he lives with his parents, who are not yet vaccinated, and is afraid of bringing the virus home to them.
“It’s just health concerns — I don’t really want to be around the general public yet,” he said.
Mr. Hesse represents what economists say is one of the most striking features of the pandemic-driven economic downturn: the tide of workers who, as the government counts things, have left the labor force.
In the year since the pandemic upended the economy, more than four million people have quit the labor force, leaving a gaping hole in the job market that cuts across age and circumstances. An exceptionally high number have been sidelined because of child care and other family responsibilities or health concerns. Others gave up looking for work because they were discouraged by the lack of opportunities. And some older workers have called it quits earlier than they had planned.
labor force participation rate among those 16 or older has dropped to about 61 percent from 63 percent in February 2020. Among prime age workers — those 25 to 54 — it has declined to 81 percent from 83 percent.
Women in their prime working years have quit the labor force at nearly twice the rate of men, according to research by Wells Fargo, partly because more women work in industries like leisure and hospitality that are less suited to social distancing and partly because women are more likely to bear the burden of child care. The share of Black women who have left the labor force is more than twice the share of white men.
Then there are the many people who may be seeking a job but who are unavailable to take one because of health concerns, illness or caretaking obligations, putting them in what economists say is something of a gray area — between being unemployed and not in the labor force — that has become more common during the pandemic.
A single mother, Frankie Wiley, 29, worked as a housekeeper at a resort in Bloomington, Minn., until she was laid off last March. She would like a paid job, but she has to stay home with her 11-year-old daughter, who is attending school remotely.
“I take care of her, so I’m her only support,” she said. She said she plans to return to work once her daughter can go back to school safely.
labor force participation has fallen to 38 percent from 40 percent in the last year.