For many people in the U.S., it feels like much more than a year has passed since the coronavirus pandemic upended the way we go about our daily lives. Yet, as challenging as it has been, by now millions have grown accustomed to maintaining social distance and staying at home to try to protect public health.

But even if we have adjusted, there’s no doubt that it was a series of shocks that brought us to where we are now. 

As apparent from an immediate drop in job postings on Indeed, historically high unemployment rates and near-complete pauses in some industries this year brought huge unforeseen changes in economic and labor trends. Because the economic shocks were due to a once-in-a-century pandemic, comparisons to previous slumps and conjectures based on the recent past had to be scrapped.

As we look back on 2020, we reflect on some of the most important job-related trends through the months, using Indeed data and insight from the economists from the Indeed Hiring Lab to shine light on where the labor market has been — and where it might be going next.

March: Interest in remote work doubled

As the seriousness of the COVID-19 threat set in, shelter-in-place measures were enacted for the first time in many states. Millions of people quickly realized their working lives were about to change dramatically — for some, they would be working from home for the foreseeable future, while others faced the prospect of losing their jobs altogether.

As a result, searches for remote work on Indeed doubled between February and March. As shown in the graph, the share of job searches including terms like “remote work” and “work at home” more than doubled, from 1.6% of all searches at the beginning of February to 3.5% by March 22.

Indeed graph showing the surge in remote work as social distancing began, with a steady increase from February 1 to March 14.

Job postings offering remote work options also increased, but as part of a larger trend of more remote job options, and not to the same extent as the spike in demand for remote work from job seekers. 

April: All eyes on essential workers

By April, almost every state in the country was subject to some form of a shelter-in-place order. The number of people working from home increased, while the workers needed to keep the country safe and functioning were duly deemed “essential workers.” These included healthcare workers, sanitation workers and grocery store staff, among others.

Additionally, the shifting demand for goods meant that while some sectors, like tourism, saw sharp declines in activity, other sectors, like grocery, boomed.

As retail moved online, we saw a jump in openings for postal workers. For example, in Oregon, the share of postal worker job openings increased by 115%. Close behind, in Michigan, the share of postal worker jobs increased by 100%, while in Indiana, the share of postal worker jobs increased by 83%.

The states with the largest increases in share of postal job worker postings were Oregon, Michigan and Indiana.

May: A shocking spike in unemployment rate

Economists and workers alike were shocked in May when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released their monthly jobs report, revealing the highest unemployment rate since the Bureau started releasing the statistic in 1948. 

Within a month, the national unemployment rate had jumped more than 10% — from 4.4% in March to 14.7% in April.

Almost no sector was safe from the dip in employment, but those that relied on close personal contact, such as childcare and dental care, were hit the hardest. 

However, Indeed economist AnnElizabeth Konkel had a word of encouragement for employers: “Poor performance is not a reflection of a business; it’s a reflection of a public health crisis that has drastically changed the environment they function in.”

July: A tale of two types of cities — some hit harder than others

As Indeed’s Hiring Lab team dug into the geography of the coronavirus pandemic’s effect on job postings, they discovered something surprising — wealthier cities with the most work-from-home jobs actually saw the biggest decrease in job postings

As Indeed’s chief economist, Jed Kolko, put it, “It’s a paradox: In places where more people can work from home — like tech hubs and finance centers — job postings have declined more than in tourist destinations such as Las Vegas and Orlando.”

Indeed graph showing the trend in job postings in hospitality metros compared to work-from-home metros from February 1 to December 1.

In the graph we see that, while the trend for all job postings took a sharp dive between March and May (bottoming out at 39% below the trend from the previous year on May 1), high hospitality metros saw their job postings trend increase more than high work from home metros when things started improving in May. Job postings in high work-from-home metros even lagged behind the trend in job postings overall by mid-May (for the most up to date numbers, visit the Hiring Lab). 

A few things were at play: the first was that jobs that could be done from home weren’t exempt from the decrease in job postings. In fact, sectors like tech and finance actually saw job postings fall more than most other sectors. 

Second, working from home was associated with going out less and spending less to support the economy. For example, someone working from home was more likely to make their mid-morning coffee in their own kitchen, as opposed to the worker leaving the house every day, who may have bought theirs at a local coffee shop. So local economic activity was lower in high work-from-home metro areas.

Lastly, cities with a higher proportion of jobs that can be done from home tend to be wealthier. And the decrease in spending by the wealthiest Americans hit the economy particularly hard. 

By summer it was estimated that half of the decline in economic activity was due to the top 25% of earners spending less.

August: Healthcare job postings dropped even more than jobs overall

In August, the Hiring Lab released data showing that, counter to what one would expect during a global pandemic, healthcare jobs had dropped in the U.S. Not only that, but as of the beginning of the summer, healthcare jobs had dropped even more than jobs overall.

Indeed graph showing that healthcare job postings fared worse than medical research job postings in 2020.

As the graph shows, at the end of March as the trend in all job postings nosedived, healthcare jobs floated five percentage points above overall jobs. This held true until late June, when the healthcare jobs trend was four percentage points below jobs overall. 

The cause? The complex nature of hospital finance and demand for healthcare. 

Hospital revenue mostly comes from procedures and surgeries such as knee replacements and colonoscopies — the types of things that are not life-threatening and can be postponed. And postponed they were. As people stayed home and avoided hospitals for fear of contracting coronavirus, the numbers of these types of procedures dropped significantly

This decrease in elective procedures also meant that hospitals were actually less full than usual in some places, even if ICUs were packed. 

Meanwhile, the coronavirus itself presented unique challenges. As cases ebbed and flowed, the demand on hospitals was inconsistent. 

Ultimately, decreased revenue from elective procedures and increased spending on supplies and equipment to treat coronavirus was the tricky combination that led to a drop in healthcare job postings.

September: The struggles of parents during a pandemic 

As fall rolled around, it became clear that the reality for many parents was that their children wouldn’t be going back to school. 

Even if school and childcare were an option, most schools and daycares ran on a limited schedule. Parents were feeling the strain — as of the end of June, 13% of parents had reduced work hours or quit the jobs completely
And childcare jobs on Indeed reflected the limited operations in the sector. By the end of August, childcare job postings were 24% below 2019 levels.

Indeed graph showing that babysitter and nanny job postings outpaced daycare job postings from April to August in 2020.

As the graph shows, some childcare jobs, however, fared better than others. By the end of the summer, babysitter and nanny jobs were actually trending higher than the previous year. 

And though all types of childcare jobs have experienced a significant comeback in terms of job posting trends, the gap between daycare and babysitter and nanny jobs has only widened since they diverged in April, with daycare job postings falling behind.

This was likely because of safety concerns — as parents and childcare providers grappled with how to safely care for groups of children, some parents opted for the more flexible option of babysitting so that care could come into their home as needed.

December: Where we are now and what to watch in 2021

There’s no doubt that the labor market is better than it was at the onset of the pandemic. 

As of December 4, the trend in job postings was 11.5% below the previous year, up from a low point in May when the trend in job postings was almost 40% below the same time the year prior. And unemployment in November was 6.7%, down from 14.7% in April.

But the picture isn’t rosy yet. Much of the recent drop in unemployment has been people who were furloughed going back to work. The core unemployment rate, which focuses on permanent job loss, is at around 6% and hasn’t improved for months.

Indeed Chief Economist Jed Kolko thinks there are three things to watch in 2021 as we try to make sense of where the labor market may go from here:

1. The spread or containment of COVID-19

If social distancing and/or a successful vaccine lead to a significant decrease in COVID-19 cases, some of the sectors hit the hardest, like hospitality and tourism, may make rebounds. But a recovery won’t happen overnight — in some cases, new workers will need to be trained and hired, and equipment and facilities will need to be brought back into service.

2. Politics and policy

Relief programs in 2020 helped both individuals and businesses stay afloat. Though it looks unlikely that additional assistance will come prior to the change in administration, the new administration is in favor of another relief package. And the views of Democrats and Republicans drew closer on some issues in 2020, such as universal healthcare and higher minimum wages. It’s unclear whether these views will hold after the pandemic, and how much constituent views will influence elected officials.

3. Which pandemic shifts become permanent

Unsurprisingly, as many people’s lifestyles changed drastically this year, so did what they spent money on. Consumer spending largely shifted from services, such as restaurants, to goods, such as home exercise equipment. Depending on how quickly safe social interaction returns, we may see a swing back to service spending.

Most workers weren’t able to telework in 2020. In May, slightly over one-third of those employed were working from home, and by October, teleworkers had dropped to 21% of those employed

But even if the amount of jobs that can be done remotely increases slightly over pre-pandemic levels, it could still have long-term effects, such as restructuring pay based on location or a change in housing markets.  
The nature of the current stress on the economy and labor market — a global pandemic that depends on people keeping away from each other to curb the spread of the virus — is unlike anything we’ve seen in recent decades. Though the virus is more widespread than ever in the U.S., hope in the form of a vaccine may be on the horizon. And if 2021 is anything like 2020, we may be surprised by what’s in store.