These are the industries where jobs still haven’t returned

Job growth is outpacing economists’ expectations, but there’s still a long way — and 6.8 million jobs — to go before the nation’s labor market returns to levels seen before Covid-19.

Economic recoveries, however, are not created equal, especially during a global pandemic that significantly altered the employment landscape.

Many businesses have reopened since vaccine availability has increased, resulting in a surge of customers, and the demand is outstripping the labor supply. The millions of workers furloughed or cast toward the sidelines aren’t immediately available to return. While bolstered unemployment benefits have been cited as a reason for hiring challenges, economists say it’s not that simple: Some workers moved locations or moved onto different jobs; some have been limited by child care needs and health concerns; and others have cited low wages and toxic workplaces as deterrents.

And some of those hardest-hit sectors and industries are still trying to claw out of very deep holes.

“There are a number of industries that are certainly lagging or have quite a ways to go,” Sarah House, a senior economist for Wells Fargo, told CNN Business.

To determine which industries still have the furthest to reach their pre-pandemic jobs levels, CNN Business analyzed data from the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Current Employment Statistics survey, which shows industry-level employment estimates through May 2021. Through this analysis, we determined the five industries with the greatest percentage share of job losses from February 2020 through May 2021.

Movie theaters

February 2020: 144,200 jobs

May 2021: 53,300 jobs (-63%)

People love a good comeback story, and the nation’s movie houses are in need of one.

By the end of April 2020, practically all indoor theaters (some drive-ins excepted) had gone dark, and about 84% of cinema employees were out of work — including the folks running the box offices, the ushers who tear tickets and clean the theaters, the concession workers who dish out the buttery popcorn, and the projectionists who ensure the films go off without a hitch.

Many of those jobs have yet to return. As of May 2021, employment in the industry remains 63%, or 91,000 jobs, below where it entered the pandemic.

The movie business has been upended. Theatrical releases were delayed, some production ceased, and streaming services surged in popularity as people holed up at home. The pandemic-related business pressures resulted in the closure of some theaters, including the beloved ArcLight and Pacific Theaters chains in California, which were lauded for their meticulous approach to film exhibition.

Overall though, the jobs are starting to come back, and in a big way. The industry has experienced the largest percentage increase in employment, with jobs up nearly 52% from January 2021 to 53,300 in May 2021, according to BLS data.

“I think this was an industry that everyone thought was going to go away, that the pandemic was going to kill the movie theater,” said Paul Dergarabedian, senior media analyst with Comscore.

Then came the plot twist:

“And it just hasn’t happened,” he said.

The lights have come back on, the projectors have started to hum again, and the majority of theaters have reopened. Comscore calculates that, at the start of July, about 80% of theaters in North America are operating as compared to the same period in 2019. Audiences have returned to see blockbuster releases such as “F9” and “Black Widow,” the latter of which had a strong box office showing despite availability on Disney+.

There’s optimism brewing among larger chains such as AMC and Cinemark Holdings on stronger box office returns and the ability to staff up while operating in a leaner fashion, which could include hiring fewer people than before.


February 2020: 107,900 jobs

May 2021: 47,100 jobs (-56%)

In the pandemic’s drubbing of the restaurant industry, the high-touch, communal, free-for-all smorgasbords took the biggest of licks.

The buffet business was left absolutely battered.

From its peak to trough — February 2020 to April 2020 — the cafeteria, buffet, and grill buffet industry lost 87% of its workforce, BLS data show. As restrictions have loosened and operators tweaked business models to include modified self-serve options, some jobs have returned.

But it’s uncertain when, or even whether, they’ll reach pre-pandemic levels.

From March 10, 2020, to July 9, 2021, about 30% of the 2,239 buffet restaurants tracked by food industry analytics firm Datassential have closed permanently. That’s compared to 12.6% of the 793,244 restaurants Datassential tracks, said Mark Brandau, the firm’s group manager.

Souplantation and Sweet Tomatoes threw in the napkin in May 2020, permanently closing all 97 restaurants. Several other buffet restaurant chains such as Old Country Buffet and Cici’s have filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection to allow for a reorganization of their businesses.

“Buffets were probably one of the more vulnerable places,” said David Henkes, senior principal and head of strategic partnerships for Technomic, a Chicago-based foodservice research and consulting firm. “There have been struggles that the sector has had well before the pandemic.”

The concept has waned in recent years for a variety of factors, Vox reported, noting challenges such as food costs, waste, rising competition from fast-casual eateries, and health and safety concerns.

Federal data from the U.S. Census Bureau show a steady decline in the number of cafeterias, grill buffets and buffets, falling from about 7,350 establishments in 2007 to under 5,500 in 2019.

Limousine service

February 2020: 36,800 jobs

May 2021: 18,200 (-51%)

On Feb. 19, 2020, RMA Worldwide Chauffeured Transportation closed an acquisition that would make it one of the largest private ground transportation companies in the nation. RMA was set to have a record first quarter, said CEO Robert Alexander, who founded the Rockville, Maryland-based RMA in 1988.

Then Covid-19 hit.

“Imagine your car running at 100 miles per hour, and you lock your brakes up,” said Alexander, who also serves as the president of the National Limousine Association.

In April 2020, NLA member businesses reported a 90% drop in revenue, Alexander said. In the weeks and months that followed, Alexander helped members cut costs, while RMA did the same: It was forced to reduce its 1,400-person workforce by 80%; the company more than halved its 900-vehicle fleet.

“It stunk,” Alexander said. “It really stunk. We had a lot of people we really cared a lot about.”

At the midpoint of last year, the number of jobs in the limousine service industry were down nearly 58% from the 36,800 total in February 2020. Employment has slowly ticked back up, reaching as high as 18,200 in May 2021, BLS data show.

The increase in vaccinations, easing of restrictions and return to travel bode well for the private transportation industry. Now it comes down to building businesses back up to meet demand, he said.

“We see that travel is coming back with a vengeance, and we need to start scaling for that,” he said. “But you can’t just wave your wand and have these [employees] come back.”

Many employees who were laid off went to work for ridesharing companies, took delivery jobs, or left the industry entirely, he said.

RMA has raised wages. Other companies such as A-National Limousine in Atlanta, Georgia, have offered signing bonuses and started paying recruiters, said Darrell Anderson, the company’s president.

“It’s tough getting back to the staffing levels, even though we have the work,” Anderson said.

Performing arts theaters and dance companies

February 2020: 97,500 jobs

May 2021: 50,000 (-49%)

When the theater stages went dark and the concert halls fell silent, they were glaring indicators that an economic engine would soon start to sputter.

The U.S. arts and creative industries — a cornucopia of artists, singers, cultural activities, advertising and cinema — have a projected annual economic impact of $920 billion, contributing about 4.3% of the nation’s gross domestic product, according to Bureau of Economic Analysis estimates for 2019.

From April 2020 through July 2020, the creative industries lost an estimated 2.7 million jobs and more than $150 billion in revenue, according to projections from the Brookings Institution released in September 2020 on the pandemic’s impact on the arts.

While some elements of the arts business — the graphic design and creative legs — experienced V-shaped recoveries, the employment recovery paths in the performing arts were L-shaped. Those taking the biggest hits were artists who graced the stages of theaters, concert halls and amphitheaters. And when those types of attractions shutter, it sends a ripple effect through surrounding businesses and communities.

“Everything in the economy plays off of each other, and this looked more like a natural disaster,” said Michael Seman, assistant professor at Colorado State University’s Arts Management school and a co-author of the Brookings report. “This was Katrina happening everywhere all at once for an indeterminate length of time.”

Most of those jobs still are slow to come back. As of May 2021, jobs in theater and dance were down 49% from where they were in February 2020, according to BLS data. And through the second quarter of 2021, when there was a 5.4% overall unemployment rate, 35.5% of actors, 27.9% of dancers and choreographers, and 13.5% of musicians were unemployed, according to data from the National Endowment for the Arts’ Research & Analysis office.

While the nation is reopening and live performances have returned, many theaters can’t simply “flip a switch” and reopen, as the Seattle Times reported this month, noting the time-consuming process of auditions, rehearsals, building sets and programming, combined with navigating tight — if not negative — finances, and not to mention ongoing public health concerns that may keep people out of indoor spaces.

Book stores and news dealers

February 2020: 81,000 jobs

May 2021: 41,600, [-49%]

In April 2019, revenue at the nation’s book stores totaled $650 million, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, which do not include pure-play online retailers or companies with distribution centers for online products. Those sales fell to $169 million in April 2020.

The health and safety restrictions coupled with fears of an elongated economic downturn sparked concern among many in the retail sector, especially small and independent book stores.

In June 2020, a member survey had the American Booksellers Association — the trade group that represents about 1,800 indie book stores — worried that one-quarter of those booksellers could go out of business, CEO Allison Hill said.

That wasn’t the case.

Since the pandemic, 74 of ABA members closed permanently while another 82 opened, she said.

“There are a lot of changes, a lot of fluidity,” she said. “I think the pandemic disrupted everything, and so people are experimenting more.”

She’s seen an increase in non-traditional store models, more pop-ups, more mobile operators. Member businesses also have grown more nimble — cutting hours, reducing staffing — to ease costs, she said.

That being said, challenges remain throughout the industry. Businesses already on thin margins are running into the red and running out of cash, she said.

“You finally get over the mountain, now there’s a river to cross,” she said.

In Tucson, Arizona, Antigone Books, canceled all events indefinitely and had to “majorly scale back all of our operations,” co-owner Kate Stern told CNN Business. The shop reduced staffing, limited operating hours and pivoted to focus more on online sales.

“[Offering online sales] is a cool thing, but not only do we have an additional business to run, we’re not really set up to do a large-scale online business,” she said. “We just computerized two years ago and were on Rolodexes until then.”

2020 was a rough year, but Stern and her co-owners have an optimistic outlook. Now the business is starting to rehire.

“It’s going to take a while to get a very steady staff in place where we can start doing events and programs again,” she said.

The BLS estimates give a sense as to the depth of the losses across the industry and how employment gains have been stubborn in recent months. Book stores and newsstands are down 39,400 jobs, or nearly half, from February 2020. From January 2021 through May 2021, levels have held flat.