The darkest days of the pandemic are far behind New York. Masks are coming off, Times Square is packed with tourists, and midtown Manhattan lunch spots have growing lines of workers in suits. Walking around the city often makes you feel like it’s 2019.
But the busy surface masks the lingering wound of the pandemic. While the country as a whole has recently regained all the jobs it lost at the start of the health crisis, New York is still short 176,000, making it the slowest recovery of any major metropolitan area, according to the latest employment data.
New York relies more than other cities on international tourists, business travelers and commuters, whose slowing return has strained the workers who care for them — from bartenders and baggage handlers to office cleaners and ushers. Most of the private-sector jobs lost were concentrated in hospitality and retail, traditional labor pathways for younger adults, immigrants and residents without a college degree.
In contrast, total employment in industries that allow remote work, such as the technology sector, is back to pre-pandemic levels.
The uneven recovery threatens to deepen inequality in the city, where apartment rents are soaring while the number of residents receiving temporary government assistance has jumped by almost a third since February 2020. an economic recovery that leaves behind thousands of blue-collar workers.
“The real shame is that many of the industries with the most jobs are the ones that are still struggling to fully recover,” said Jonathan Bowles, executive director of the Center for Urban Futures, a public policy think tank.
New York City was hit particularly hard by the first wave of the virus, prompting business closures and employer vaccination mandates that were among the longest and strictest in the country. One reason for New York’s lagging recovery is that it lost one million jobs in the first two months of the pandemic, the most of any city.
Recently, New York City has quickly regained jobs. The tech sector actually added jobs during the first 18 months of the pandemic, a period when nearly every other industry shrank.
But job growth slowed this summer in industries such as hotels and restaurants compared with a year earlier, while businesses in technology, healthcare and finance increased employment at a faster pace over the same period, according to an analysis by James Parrott, an economist at the Center for New York City at the New School.
In July, the city’s unemployment rate was 6.1 percent, compared to 3.5 percent for the country overall for the month.
At the height of the pandemic, Ronald Nibbs, 47, was laid off as a cleaner in the midtown Manhattan office building where he had worked for seven years. Mr Nibbs, his girlfriend and his two children were fighting for unemployment benefits and food stamps.
He secured temporary positions, but the work was dirty and the offices were sparsely populated. He did not want to change careers and hoped to regain his old position. He started drinking heavily to cope with the anxiety of being unemployed.
In May, his building finally called him back to work. “When I got that phone call I wanted to cry,” Mr Nibbs said.
According to Local 32BJ of the International Service Employees Union, there are now 1,250 fewer cleaners in the city than before the pandemic.
Last month, New York officials lower the job growth forecast for 2022 to 4.3 percent from 4.9 percent, with the state not expected to reach pre-pandemic employment levels until 2026. Officials cited continued telecommuting and the migration of city residents away from the state as long-term risks to employment.
The number of tourists visiting New York City this year is expected to return to 85 percent of 2019 levels, a year when a record 66.6 million travelers arrived, according to forecasts by NYC & Company, the city’s official tourism agency.
But visitors to the city are spending less overall, the agency said, because those who have historically stayed here longer — business and international travelers — haven’t returned at the same price. This has hurt department stores that depend on high-spending foreign visitors, as well as hotels that rely on business travelers for conference and banquet bookings.
Ilialy Santos, 47, returned to her job this month as a room attendant at the Paramount Hotel in Times Square, which is reopening for the first time since March 2020. The hotel was a candidate for redevelopment into affordable housing, but the plan was opposed by a local union, the New York Hotel and Gaming Trades Council to save jobs.
Ms. Santos said she had been unable to find a job for two years and fell behind on her bills every month. The hotel union provided her landlord with a $1,000 payment to help cover her rent.
“I’m excited to get back to work, get back to a normal life and be more stable,” Ms Santos said.
Despite the increased unemployment rate in the city, many employers say they are still struggling to find workers, especially in roles that cannot be done remotely. The size of the workforce has also decreased, down by around 300,000 people as of February 2020.
Some white-collar workers who lost their jobs at the start of the pandemic are now waiting for positions that would allow them to work from home.
Jade Campbell, 34, has been out of work since March 2020, when the pandemic temporarily closed the Old Navy store where she worked as a sales representative. When the store called her in the fall, she was in the middle of a heavy pregnancy with a first-grade son who was struggling to focus during online classes. She decided to stay at home and applied for various types of government assistance.
Ms. Campbell now lives alone in Queens without child care support; her children are 1 and 8 years old. She refused to get vaccinated against Covid-19, which is a prerequisite for many personal jobs in New York. Still, she said she’s optimistic about applying for remote customer service roles after reaching out to the Goodwill NYNJ nonprofit for help with her resume.
“I have two children that I know I have to support,” she said. “I can’t really count on the government to help me.”
At Petri Plumbing & Heating in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, several workers quit because of the city’s policy to require private business employees to be fully vaccinated. The restriction was the strictest in the country when it was announced in December 2021 at the end of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s term.
After Mayor Eric Adams signaled earlier this year that his administration would not enforce the mandateMichael Petri, the company’s owner, offered to rehire three former workers. One returned, another found another job and a third moved to another state, he said.
With wages of $50 an hour and monthly bonuses, current jobs at Petri Plumbing have attracted a flood of applicants. Unlike before the pandemic, Mr Petri said more applicants without plumbing experience now have to work their way through.
The strongest candidates often have too many traffic violations to put on the company’s policy, he said. But recently Mr. Petri was so desperate to hire a mechanic with too many offenses that he hired a young laborer just to drive him.
“This is undoubtedly one of the most difficult times we have faced,” said Mr Petri, whose family founded the company in 1906.
The city’s youngest employees were the most repulsed by the disruption. The unemployment rate for workers aged 16 to 24 is 20.7 percent.
After graduating high school in 2020, Simone Ward enrolled in a community college, but dropped out after a few months because she felt disconnected from online courses.
Ms. Ward, 20, signed up for a cooking program with the nonprofit Queens Community House, which allowed her to get a part-time job making steak sandwiches at Citi Field during baseball games. But scheduling was inconsistent, and the job required a 90-minute commute on three subway lines from her home in Brooklyn’s Canarsie neighborhood.
She applied for data entry jobs that would allow her to work remotely, but never heard back. She recalled interviewing for a job at an Olive Garden restaurant, and the moment she realized she was swinging, her social skills were diminished by the isolation she was locked in.
“The pandemic feels like it has set my life back five steps,” she said.
Desiree Obando, 35, lost her job at a restaurant in Manhattan’s West Village at the start of the pandemic, prompting her to leave the hospitality industry after 12 years. When the restaurant group she worked for asked her to come back a few months later, she had already enrolled at LaGuardia Community College and returned to school after dropping out twice before, with the goal of becoming a high school counselor.
She now works part-time at an educational nonprofit that pays $20 an hour, which is less than her hospitality job. But the job is close to her home in East Harlem, giving her the flexibility to pick up her daughter whenever the school is exposed to the virus.
Ms. Obando hopes to eventually earn a higher income after completing her master’s degree.
“There is nothing like a pandemic to set things straight,” Ms Obando said. “I made the right choice for me and my family.