Newly Unemployed Service Workers Owe More Than $1.7 Billion a Month in Housing Payments

More than $1.7 billion in rent and mortgage payments is owed each month by U.S. service-sector workers currently receiving unemployment benefits as a result of the coronavirus pandemic — payments that could be in jeopardy if expanded local and federal unemployment assistance fades or workers remain without incomes longer than expected.

Service-sector workers (including the food, arts, entertainment, recreation and retail industries) are perhaps feeling the greatest financial impact from COVID-19 as many shops and restaurants reduced operations or shut their doors completely.

An estimated $1.7 billion in rent and mortgage payments is owed each month by service-sector workers who received unemployment benefits in April as a result of COVID-19, according to a new analysis by online real estate company Zillow. 

About 70% of that total ($1.2 billion) is from renters, illustrating the unprecedented scale of what is at risk in the rental market.

That’s nearly 3% of the total monthly rent paid in the U.S., even before accounting for newly unemployed renters in all other industries — Zillow estimates service-sector workers comprise a little more than a third of those who have lost their jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. 

Previous Zillow research has shown renters in the food and retail industries already struggled with cost burdens before the pandemic, making it difficult for those who fall behind to catch back up. 

Safety nets including unemployment benefits, the CARES Act stimulus checks and temporary renter protections have eased tensions for many households for the short-term, at least.

But with state reserves stretched, stimulus checks covering only a portion of the typical monthly rent or mortgage payment in many states, and many workers who don’t qualify for benefits, a large share of housing payments could be missed eventually if government assistance expires or jobs don’t return to pre-pandemic levels — likely pushing some into housing insecurity.

Skyrocketing unemployment caused about 22% of renters to not pay any of their rent during the first week of April, up from about 18% last spring.

That fell to 20% in May, a possible signal that government aid and the reopening of some businesses is helping to lessen financial stress. More assistance could be on the way in the form of the HEROES Act, but the long-term picture is unclear. 

It’s not only service-sector workers that are experiencing mass unemployment during the coronavirus pandemic. Some states with economies reliant on manufacturing are also feeling the impact of heavy unemployment.

In Ohio, where manufacturing makes up the largest share of the state’s GDP, 53% of housing payments owed by manufacturing workers are from those whose jobs have been affected by COVID-19. In Michigan, that share is 27%. 

Even workers in essential industries that have been largely allowed to continue operations are not immune from unemployment.

Many states halted non-emergency medical procedures, such as dental work and routine medical checkups, pushing some healthcare workers to file for unemployment benefits.

In both Washington and Oregon, two states among the first to issue stay-at-home orders and limit business operations, healthcare workers receiving unemployment payments made up about 12.5% of the total housing payments owed by workers in that industry in April.

That share is even higher in Georgia (19%), Rhode Island (18%) and New Hampshire (13.5%). 

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