One Hundred Dollar Bill with COVID-19 mask on Ben Franklin
One Hundred Dollar money bill. Benjamin Franklin with face medical mask. COVID-19 coronavirus USA, Economy world crisis.

New NC labor market data shows state is far from full recovery

A massive Federal response to COVID-19 staved off what could have been the worst economic collapse in US history, but we’re not out of the woods yet. The stock market has been on a tear, many working people have more leverage to secure wage gains, and federal assistance kept millions of North Carolinians from experiencing complete financial ruin.

All that said, we’re still far from full recovery and in a lot of the economic divides in our state have gotten even worse.
We still have a long way to go to get to full recovery. In spite of the low headline unemployment rate, there were still around 70,000 fewer jobs in November of last year than before COVID-19 decimated our economy. That shortfall isn’t for a lack of people who want to work, no matter how many times business interests try to blame people for the challenges in this economy. There were still nearly 15,000 more people looking for work in November than before COVID-19, clear proof that the will to work remains for many North Carolinians.

Federal supplementary unemployment benefits were helping families and not a drag on job recovery

For all of the handwringing and carping by some politicians and special interest groups, it’s pretty clear now that supplementary federal unemployment benefits that put an additional $600 a week into the pockets of people who’d lost jobs during COVID-19 were not holding many people back from taking getting back to work. The biggest monthly gain during 2021 came in June while those benefits were still being paid out and the public health context allowed more economic reopening. Employment gains in the three months we have data for since federal benefits stopped flowing (September – October) was just over 12,000 per month, a far cry from the wave of job growth some voices had been predicting for months.

Stock run-up driving a wave of retirements and deepening economic divides

One of the most important and least discussed stories in the pandemic economy is how a surging stock market has deepened the divide between workers with retirement accounts based in stock value and workers without access to that source of wealth. After an initial downturn at the onset of COVID-19, the stock market has been on an absolute tear, with the S&P 500 index now more than 25 percent above pre-pandemic levels. It should be no surprise that a lot of workers who were lucky enough to benefit from those stock gains have chosen to avoid the health risk of in-person work and decided to retire early. Based on surveys conducted through mid 2021, roughly 165,000 North Carolinians entered retirement. This reality is both a major reason employers are struggling to find workers. Even more importantly, this trend deepens the divide in lived reality between white collar people with nice retirement accounts and the millions of lower-wage North Carolinians who are cut off from that source of economic security.

A tale of two economies – high-wage recovery and low-wage recession

The headline employment figures mask a deep divide that has persisted throughout the pandemic between the job prospects in highly paid professions and lower-wage industries. Data from mid-August indicate that, while jobs paying over $60,000 a year have increased substantially compared to pre-COVID levels, more than 1 out of every 5 jobs paying less than $27,000 are still missing. Given that many of the good-paying jobs where growth is happening require specialized skills and experience, substantial support is needed for people who lost low-wage positions during the pandemic to access those opportunities.

For charts showing the most recent labor data and COVID-19 job data, visit the NC Budget & Tax Center’s Labor Market page at