May 7, 2020

Covering COVID-19 is a daily Poynter briefing of story ideas about the coronavirus for journalists, written by senior faculty Al Tompkins. Sign up here to have it delivered to your inbox every weekday morning.

We will get April’s sobering national unemployment figures Friday. We might learn that 16 to 20%, up to one in five American workers, are now jobless. In fact, some economists said we were already at the 20% mark last month.

The figures will arrive via the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, as they do every month.

It may be confusing to see charts like the one below that show March had a fairly low jobless rate compared to historic peaks. But, if the predictions are even close to true, Friday’s line will shoot through the top of this graphic.

(U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

The numbers will tempt journalists to compare the current jobless rate to the Great Depression. But economists warn that may be a misrepresentation and a bad comparison. Paul Ashworth, chief U.S. economist at Capital Economics, told CNBC:

“A surge in the unemployment rate to more than 15% would invite comparisons with the Great Depression, but we think those are misplaced because many of the unemployed will return to paid employment when the lockdowns are lifted,” Ashworth said in a note. “Nearly all of the increase in unemployment in March was due to temporary layoffs rather than permanent job losses.”

Ashworth expects the unemployment rate to come down quickly once the economy restarts — perhaps falling to 10% by summer and below 7% by the end of the year.

Researchers at the Federal Reserve Board offered additional context:

For comparison, during the entire Great Recession less than 9 million private payroll employment jobs were lost. In the current crisis, the most affected sector is leisure and hospitality, which has so far lost or furloughed about 30% of employment, or roughly 4 million jobs.

The Federal Reserve has been tracking the pandemic’s effects on jobs since February and highlighted industries where the most jobs have been lost and industries that cannot be fulfilled remotely.

A few key definitions: “Active employment” is defined as people who are on payroll but may or may not have been paid for work in the last period. “Paid employment” means people who are currently being paid for work. The complete removal of employees from payroll records may reflect permanent job destructions, while a decline in paid employment could reflect both permanent and temporary layoffs.

The tracking of industries’ “ability to telework” shows, among other things, that only 8.8% of workers in the hospitality and leisure industries can work at home. And obviously nobody can log or mine online.

The chart below may give you story ideas about the industries near you that have been hit the hardest and least.

(The Federal Reserve)

The Bureau of Labor Statistics releases employment data in waves that are broken down in a lot of ways. For example, on April 29, the government calculated unemployment by metro areas. You can see where your city ranks nationally in terms of unemployment. In March, towns on Maui, Hawaii, had the lowest unemployment in the country. Yuma, Arizona, and El Centro, California, had the highest. El Centro was already above 20% in March.

The federal stimulus unemployment checks end in July

Right now, unemployed workers get state checks in addition to $600 a month from the federal stimulus CARES Act. But, in a matter of weeks (for some by July 25), that federal assistance will go away. That will leave millions of people trying to make ends meet on state unemployment checks alone.

The average worker received about $378 a week in state unemployment benefits prior to the relief law, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That means the average jobless person will see a 158% drop in income once the federal checks dry up.

In short, those food pantry lines that stretch for miles, even while the federal money is flowing, will be growing soon.

Here is a list of every state’s unemployment benefits and how long they last. Mississippi pays up to $235 a week to the unemployed. Massachusetts’

unemployment program pays up to $1,220 a week. Nevada and Georgia’s benefits end after 12 weeks, but many states offer 26 weeks or longer.

The best people are suddenly available

The Harvard Business Review took a “glass half full” view of the unemployment story:

The pool of available talent is suddenly both changing and expanding, and visionary leaders can make the most of it, preparing the ground for post-crisis recovery and growth. As management guru Jim Collins has shown us, making the leap from good to great starts with getting the right people on the bus.

HBR told the story of businesses that have used rough economic times to cherry-pick their competitors’ best employees. Researchers looked at 4,700 employers worldwide and how they reacted to the last three recessions. A small percentage of them came out better after the recession because they didn’t just cut staff and lay people off during rough times. They cut what they had to but still brought on top talent that led the recovery. HBR said:

Unfortunately, most companies make the mistake of uniformly freezing hiring in downturns. During the 2008 global financial crisis, BCG and the European Association for People Management surveyed 3,400 executives, including 90 senior human resources leaders in more than 30 countries, to see how they were responding. The most frequent action (or reaction) was to scale back recruiting. At the same time, survey participants rated the selective hiring of high-performing employees from competitors as one of the three most effective responses to the previous crisis (from a list of 22) and the one with the best impact on employee commitment. This irrationality is widespread. Those who stay rational can capitalize on it.

Who is hiring? You can help

You are going to be delivering some fairly grim news Friday. I wonder if newspapers, online news sites, TV and radio stations could help connect the public with open jobs.

This idea of virtual job fairs is not original with me; I have seen it work. This is from KTRK-TV in Houston. The station held a virtual job fair on Facebook.

If I was an employer that had jobs open, ready to hire, maybe my local news organization could be a conduit for hiring.

By the way, when I entered the words “hiring near me” into a Google search, it came up with hundreds of full-time jobs, from working in a cannabis dispensary to Walmart.

Another view of third-party food delivery

Yesterday this newsletter included a story about a restaurant that complained that GrubHub charges so much that it’s barely worth the restaurant’s time to fulfill orders, and that maybe customers should order directly through the restaurant.

I got a note from John Sahly, editor at Shaw Media Illinois, who said the Northwest Herald saw the same viral social post I saw and asked around. The Herald found a totally different viewpoint. Restaurant owners told the Herald that the amount restaurants pay to third-party delivery services depends on how the restaurants use the service and, for some restaurants, their very survival depends on having a third-party delivery service.

Adele and her message(s)

English singer-songwriter Adele went on Instagram yesterday and thanked first responders for their work during COVID-19. The photo she attached of herself broke the internet as people were stunned by her trim appearance.

While some fans gushed over her, others like disability activist Melissa Blake tweeted:

It is a fair message. Weight does not equal happy, and weight does not equal healthy. Seek both happiness and good health, especially while we are locked away. (See how I wedged in a little celebrity news while supposedly writing about COVID-19?)

The future of Friday night football in a COVID-19 world

A friend of mine, Michael Schneider at the Texas Association of Broadcasters, mentioned something to me that I had not considered. He said small-town radio stations get about 60% of their annual income by broadcasting Friday night high school football games.

We were thinking out loud about what effects the shutdown would have on the stations if they continued into the fall. On the one hand, if live audiences aren’t allowed, the games could be a “must listen” event. On the other hand, if advertisers are still on the ropes, it could be a devastating blow to local radio.

WWL radio in New Orleans interviewed a local high school coach who said his team planned to start conditioning as a team on May 17. The coach, John Curtis, said around the country, high schools are talking about an Oct. 1 season beginning. The coach said coaches everywhere are trying to figure out how to social distance in baseball dugouts and team huddles. He also said high school athletics are not considering allowing high school students to have an extra year of eligibility if they miss their senior season.

The Kansas State High School Activities Association voted to allow voluntary team practices starting June 1, but if local health departments still have restrictions on group gatherings in place, the teams would have to follow those rules. Coaches said it could set up a scenario where some teams have more practice and conditioning time than others.

COVID-19 costs scholarships

Some of the students I feel the most sympathy for are the seniors who were counting on a spring season to prove themselves scholarship-worthy to a college team. USA Today reported:

Spring and summer are prime seasons for boys and girls basketball. College coaches typically flock to (Amateur Athletic Union) tournaments, shootouts and camps to evaluate prospects.

Even football is affected. In Alabama, Fairfield High Preparatory School teammates Ja’Sean Dukes and Keon Handley Jr. are without their fully equipped high school weight room that normally would have been their home for spring conditioning workouts.

The NCAA is allowing bigger rosters. Who will pay for that?

The NCAA is going to allow teams to expand their spring rosters to give this year’s seniors who are missing their final season another year to play. But the schools already recruited freshmen to take the slots that were supposed to be vacated by graduates.

Now the teams are having to make two decisions. First, they have to decide if they will allow seniors to stay and play. Second, they have to decide how to pay for scholarships for both those who are staying longer and those who are coming in. It is a tough call when universities everywhere are crunched for cash.

Bigtime college sports are facing so many questions. How much can they depend on donors, whose businesses have likely been torn to shreds these last few months? If attendance is sparse or nonexistent, how will athletics departments pay the bills?

College sports may be about to change forever. Baseball and softball seasons, which can stretch 56 games, will almost certainly be shorter. Coaching staffs will certainly shrink. Signage, sponsorships, gameday hospitality get-togethers and luxury clubhouses are all being reconsidered. Keep an eye on university budget votes.

Are you ready for some football?

Thursday night, the NFL will release its 2020 schedule. The NFL believes sports fans are so hungry for anything live that the announcement will come in a three-hour TV special.

That’s three hours to explain who is going to play whom when and where.

Of course, the schedule may be more aspirational than realistic — the announcements will be based on the assumption that 2020 will go ahead as usual with fans in the stands.

In any case, fans are all aflutter and are dreaming up ideal schedules. For a lot of people this is a big-ish kind of thing.

Fans in Las Vegas have a new team, the Raiders, to get excited about. The Rams will play in a new Los Angeles stadium this fall — or sometime.

So you can sound like you know what you are talking about: “Each team will play four games against a first-place team from 2019, four games against a second-place team from 2019, four games against a third-place team and four games against a fourth-place team for a total of 16 games.”

And, you can mark these dates down in pencil because they probably will change. From

The 2020 regular season will kick off on Thursday, Sept. 10, and end after Week 17 is played on Jan. 2, 2021.

The 2020 NFL season will conclude on Feb. 7, 2021, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, where the NFC champion and AFC champion will meet in Super Bowl LV.

Speaking for the people of Tampa Bay, if you feel sick in February, please stay home. Just send your money.

We’ll be back tomorrow with a new edition of Covering COVID-19. Sign up here to get it delivered right to your inbox.

Al Tompkins is senior faculty at Poynter. He can be reached at or on Twitter, @atompkins.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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