State and local governments continued to cut payroll employment in December, a sign that a crucial sector was bleeding jobs nine months into the pandemic.
Those governments account for about 13 percent of employment in the United States, which makes their trajectory extremely important to the nation’s labor market outlook. Because most are required to balance their budgets, lower income or higher expenses can lead to big job cuts.
State and local employers shed 51,000 workers in December compared with the prior month. As of last month, they reported 1.4 million fewer jobs than in February, the month before the pandemic job losses started.
The big employment cuts come despite revenue losses that appear milder than many analysts had expected at the pandemic’s outset. Louise Sheiner at the Brookings Institution estimated in a recent post that states would miss $350 billion in revenue over three years. Meanwhile, by her estimation, they received about $280 billion in direct and indirect federal aid in a March relief package, and about $120 billion more — largely indirectly — with the most recent fiscal package.
But expenses have shot up as the states try to deal with the public health crisis, which could leave budgets under strain even as federal aid helps to overcome revenue shortfalls. And the economic hit from the virus has not been evenly spread — some places are struggling more acutely.
From an employment standpoint, it’s also important that states were finalizing budgets when worse outcomes were expected, and may have cut back as a result, Ms. Sheiner wrote.
“What we’re seeing is that it’s different state to state,” Jerome H. Powell, the Fed chair, said at a news conference in December. But he pointed out that many employees had been cut from state payrolls, at least temporarily. “We’re watching carefully to understand why that many people have been let go and what really are the sources,” he said.