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Written by: Jason Gray, Senior Fellow for Research and Policy
Maps created by: Alfred Garshong, Data Systems Manager

2020 has been a year of profound stress, pain, and loss for North Carolina and the entire nation. In January, the word “COVID-19” was unknown to most of us. In February, it became known but still felt far away. By March, a temporary economic shutdown to limit the virus spread had been implemented, and by May, an estimated 709,000 fewer North Carolinians were employed. It all happened in just four months.

Percentage Change in Employment – February, 2020 to May, 2020

The map above breaks down the percentage change in employment by county from February to May, and shows that urban and suburban counties took the larger hit, with a 16 percent average reduction. Rural counties experienced a decline of 12 percent. 

Why the difference? The pandemic’s biggest initial economic impact was in retail, food, and accommodation businesses, which are more concentrated in urbanized areas. Still, more than 200,000 rural jobs were lost, many temporarily, but some are likely to be permanent.

We note, however, that a small number of rural counties had employment growth through the February to May time period. What accounts for that? All the rural counties with growth—with the exception perhaps of Jackson County—historically have wide swings in seasonal employment. February would have been their seasonal employment floor and by May they had small but positive increases.

Percentage Change in Employment – May, 2020 to October, 2020

The second map, showing the percentage employment change from May to October (the most recent month available with county level data), shows a strong recovery reflecting the stimulus support, and the easing of contact restrictions that allowed most businesses to reopen, at least on a limited basis. There was an increase of
430,437 employed during this time period, a recovery of ten percent. Most of this increase were individuals returning to previously held positions. The map shows that urban and suburban counties, who had fallen the hardest from February to May, recovered strongly. Six urban counties alone added 184,500 employed. Rural counties added 136,000 across 80 counties. This is a remarkable recovery, aided in large part by the CARES Act stimulus.

Percentage Change in Employment – February, 2020 to October, 2020

The third map shows employment change over the entire period, from February to October, and underscores that while North Carolina’s recovery is strong, our state still has a ways to go to make up the economic cratering brought on by the pandemic. As of October, employment was still six percent below the February state average –
278,585 fewer employed, over a quarter of a million jobs. Urban and suburban counties were seven percent below their February average employment, the rural counties were on average four percent below their February value. The rural counties in green for the most part reflect seasonal employment boosts.

What does it mean? The pandemic is resurgent nationally, and while North Carolina is far better off than many other states, our cases, hospitalizations, and fatalities are also once again rising. Recently released November national labor data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics at the federal Department of Labor, indicates a marked slowing in job creation – 245,000 new jobs compared to 610,000 in October. The economic future is unknown except this: there is a shared fate between our economic and public health. Until the pandemic ends, our economy will remain fragile and vulnerable.