And that issue — unemployment — is the one that will stalk Virginia policymakers for years to come.
Virginia’s coronavirus-induced unemployment figures are the stuff of Depression-era newsreels. According to the most recent Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) data, the number of continuing claims for unemployment stands at more than 376,000.
At the same time a year ago, the number of continuing claims was slightly less than 18,500. The VEC says even with a slowdown in the number of new weekly claims, the number “may not return to pre-pandemic levels for some time.”
That’s an understatement. Nationally, workers who’ve lost their jobs believe it’s temporary and that they will be back to work once the lockdowns and the novel coronavirus have receded.
It’s a best-case scenario that assumes a lot about our ability to contain, never mind cure, the virus. It also assumes businesses survive — not just the shutdown, but also the weeks and potentially months of state-regulated reopening.
The more troublesome scenario is that unemployment lingers for several years. It’s happened before. Richmond Federal Reserve economist Sonya Ravindranath Waddell told me Virginia’s employment numbers didn’t return to their pre-Great Recession levels until 2018.
But prolonged bouts of unemployment affect more than just bills and bank balances.
In an email, University of Richmond professor Violet Ho told me the “financial and security-related impact” of pandemic-induced unemployment is clear. Money gets scarce. Bills pile up. Ho said what’s less obvious but equally important is the “psychological impact to our sense of self, our sense of relatedness and our sense of competence, particularly if our identities are tied to our work roles.”
Mental health effects extend even to those who still have jobs, manifested in greater stress from higher workloads and the possibility their jobs may not be “pandemic-proof.”
“The repercussions of this pandemic on workers’ physical and mental health will be far and wide,” Ho said. If there’s silver lining, it’s not that the old jobs may return, it’s that some people who’ve lost their jobs will press ahead — essentially retraining themselves for new and different work.” This echoes Richmond Fed president Tom Barkin’s call for job retraining, particularly for “the large number of low-end service workers displaced by this crisis.”
That’s just one scenario. Ho said others caught in the unemployment undertow may turn to “more negative forms of coping strategies,” including drug, alcohol or violence that can “trigger a negative spiral” that further affects their physical, mental and economic health.
“Even if the state and the country were to reopen,” Ho said, “these individuals are unlikely to be able to bounce back quickly and rejoin the economy.”
What about those parts of the state, such as Southside and Southwestern Virginia, that have long lagged the rest of the state in economic growth?
Ho said areas “that are less affluent, where families have less of a financial buffer, or where workers work in jobs where social distancing is not feasible … will definitely suffer more if the economy does not reopen quickly.”
Even a more liberal reopening for the region, as some have advocated, carries risks of spreading the virus — which could result in renewed lockdowns.
Ho said, “either way, it is highly likely that people in certain parts of the state will be hit harder than others.” This will require Virginia policymakers to have some sort of financial and health-related “fail-safe mechanism” to “mitigate the fallout” in those regions.
University of Richmond professor Crystal Hoyt said persistent unemployment could lead to another type of fallout: the belief that the fundamental American promise of upward mobility and broad economic opportunity is dead.
“On the one hand,” Hoyt said, “this belief can promote greater support for redistributive economic policies.”
But it can have equally damaging knock-on effects, Hoyt said, including “greater prejudice against” the poor and that “being in poverty becomes a reflection of a person’s moral core or character.”
Northam has repeatedly said he wants his reopening decisions to be based on Virginia’s ability to meet “key health metrics.” The process is meant to be objective, apolitical and health-based.
It’s also only a slice of the wider picture. Unemployment needs to be included because its effects on the health, well-being and outlook of Virginians will endure long after Northam has passed from the political scene.