Grocery store worker Ricardo Nogueira wearing a face mask shows dried cod fish to a costumer wearing an acrylic shield in Lisbon on May 4, 2020 as millions of Europeans emerged with relief from coronavirus confinement. Picture: AFP/PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA
Grocery store worker Ricardo Nogueira wearing a face mask shows dried cod fish to a costumer wearing an acrylic shield in Lisbon on May 4, 2020 as millions of Europeans emerged with relief from coronavirus confinement. Picture: AFP/PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA

Zurich/London — European governments have had to spend big to protect workers during the coronavirus restrictions, but the huge burden on the public finances looks like it is worth it.

More than 40-million workers have been furloughed during the shutdowns, based on data from the region’s biggest economies, getting a portion of their pay covered by the state. Without the government support, many might have lost their jobs, sending unemployment soaring to levels never seen before.

Bloomberg Economics estimates if all workers at risk were to become unemployed, the jobless rate across Germany, France, Italy and Spain — the four largest economies in the euro area — could soar as high as 42% at the peak of the lockdown.

That would be a huge blow to the euro-region economy, where the labour market only slowly improved after the dual devastation of the global financial crisis followed by the region’s sovereign debt crisis.

To prevent a repeat of that, governments have stepped up. Their estimated spend on furlough programmes will amount to about €100bn from March to May in the biggest economies.

The picture looks far more dramatic in the US, where monthly jobs data is coming on Friday. Already one of the most closely watched reports globally, April’s edition may show payrolls fell a staggering 21-million in April. That is 26 times higher than the worst monthly number during the financial crisis.

But Europe’s labour market is also far from unscathed. In Germany, there was a record 373,000 surge in jobless claims in April. The figure in Spain has jumped almost 600,000 over the past two months.

McKinsey estimated last month that even in a more optimistic scenario, unemployment in the EU-27 will rise to 7.6% from 6.5% in February — before the virus restrictions. In a more gloomy scenario, where social distancing and quarantine measures last through the summer, the jobless rate peaks above 11% and does not get back to 2019 levels until 2024.

Governments are starting to feel their way back to normality, with restrictions on public movement easing, schools resuming, some restaurants allowed to open under certain conditions.

But it is going to be a slow path, and many businesses will not be able to operate at full capacity for months. That means jobs will remain at risk, and some will disappear altogether.

Unemployment is “rising to levels that we just haven’t seen since the Great Depression”, Sarah Hewin, chief economist at Standard Chartered in London, said on Bloomberg Television.

“Unemployment will come down once lockdown is over, and we will see a decline, but it’s likely that the unemployment rates across Europe stay high for some time.”

Bloomberg

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