Six months into the novel coronavirus pandemic, New York State’s private-sector employment recovery was the slowest in the 48 contiguous states—and getting slower.

The latest monthly jobs report from the state Labor Department and the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed a lingering economic hangover from the spring shutdown of business by Governor Cuomo’s New York State on Pause order—despite phased-in partial reopenings since May.

As of August, according to state Labor Department data, private-sector employment in the Empire State was down 1.1 million jobs from the same month a year earlier, a year-to-year decrease of 13.2 percent and New York’s lowest August employment level since 2011, early in the post-Great Recession recovery.


This is an installment in a special series of #NYCoronavirus chronicles by Empire Center analysts, focused on New York’s state and local policy response to the coronavirus pandemic.


The August difference was only a slight improvement over July, when New York’s private payroll job count was down 1.2 million from a year earlier. In April, when COVID-19 outbreaks peaked, the state lost a stunning 1.834 million private-sector jobs on a year-to-year basis, rolling that month’s total all the way back to the 1996 level.

Far from a hoped-for V-shaped recovery, the pace of hiring and rehiring by New York employers has come to more closely resemble a lopsided L, as shown below. At this rate, it will be at least another year before private employment in the state returns to 2019 levels.

By comparison, the nationwide private employment total as of August was down only 7.5 percent from a year earlier, having recovered to just below the August 2015 level.

In percentage terms, as of August, only Hawaii and Alaska were further below their pre-pandemic levels than New York, as shown below.

Regional variations

In line with the pattern since March, as shown in the state Labor Department table below, the biggest job losses have occurred in New York City, the epicenter of the nation’s spring COVID-19 outbreak, and in the downstate suburbs of Long Island and the lower Hudson Valley—with the significant exception of the small, tourism-intensive Glens Falls region, where private employment was still 19 percent below the August 2019 level, and Watertown-Fort Drum, down 15.4 percent. The metro area with the lowest employment loss was Elmira, down just 2.3 percent. Given Elmira’s longer trend of economic decline and job losses leading up to the pandemic, this may be an indication that the area’s job base has contracted so much that it had less to lose.

New York’s upstate metro areas also sustained larger job losses and recovered more slowly than the national average, despite having experienced much less severe COVID-19 caseloads. Private payrolls in upstate areas were down a total of 215,900 jobs from a year earlier—an 11 percent decrease. On a percentage basis, only five states (excluding New York as a whole) experienced bigger year-to-year job declines. Total upstate metro area private-sector employment as of August was the lowest on record for that month since 1990, when the current data series starts.

New York’s unemployment rate in August was estimated at 12.5 percent, ranking third highest among states after Rhode Island (12.8 percent) and Nevada (13.2 percent), compared to 8.4 percent nationally; in August 2019, the statewide unemployment rate was just 3.9 percent. Unemployment was estimated at 16 percent in New York City and 9.9 percent in the rest of the state, including downstate suburbs.

About the Author

E.J. McMahon

Edmund J. McMahon is Empire Center's founder and a senior fellow.

Read more by E.J. McMahon

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