How Might COVID-19 Affect Philadelphia’s Workforce?

Certain low-wage sectors and jobs are likely to be among hardest hit

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How Might COVID-19 Affect Philadelphia’s Workforce?
The Pew Charitable Trusts

The potential economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Philadelphia is only just beginning to take shape. Locally, some sectors are being hit harder than others—and among them are several in which the jobs of city residents are concentrated.

Accommodations and food services; arts, entertainment, and recreation; and retail trade are among the industries expected to be most vulnerable nationally to immediate disruption from social distancing measures to control the novel coronavirus’ spread, according to a recent analysis by the Pew Research Center. And the most recent data on job losses from the Bureau of Labor Statistics appears to back that up. Locally, these sectors employ a large share of Philadelphians as opposed to suburban commuters, according to 2019 research by The Pew Charitable Trusts.

And because these industries tend to have high numbers of lower-paying jobs, a greater proportion of their workers—and therefore their households—may be vulnerable to the financial impact of current or future layoffs.

Data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey indicates that Philadelphians make up more than three-quarters of the city’s workforce in the retail trade and accommodations/food services sectors. And these are two of the three lowest-paying industries in the city, with median earnings of less than $22,000 per year. (See Figure 1.) These sectors account for approximately 47,000 Philadelphians working in retail and another 40,000 employed in accommodations and food services.

Not far behind is the local arts, entertainment, and recreation sector, in which roughly 11,000 city residents make up about 70% of the workforce. These workers also receive comparatively low wages (a median of $20,400 per year).

These three sectors have been among the fastest-growing in Philadelphia, together adding more than 16,000 residents to their payrolls from 2009 to 2017, according to census data.

Looking at the city's employment profile in a different way, through occupations rather than industries, city residents also make up a higher share of customer-facing service sector jobs that have felt an immediate impact from COVID-19. Positions such as cashiers, chefs and cooks, and first-line supervisors of sales workers are among the 10 most common occupations for city residents (see Table 1)—and they are among the jobs most at risk of layoffs, according to an analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve. These occupations collectively employed close to 35,000 city residents in 2017.

Table 1

Top 10 Occupations for City Residents in Philadelphia, 2017

Many were in low-paying jobs that did not require a college degree
Number of workers Median wage Percentage with bachelor's degree or above
Nursing, psychiatric, and home health aides 15,612 $23,000 8%
Cashiers 14,288 $10,872 8%
Registered nurses 11,341 $73,655 76%
Secretaries and administrative assistants 10,503 $38,299 24%
Chefs and cooks 10,407 $19,650 9%
First-line supervisors of sales workers 9,892 $40,852 36%
Janitors and building cleaners 9,600 $21,537 4%
Postsecondary teachers 9,295 $51,065 90%
Other managers 8,988 $74,550 66%
Security guards and gaming surveillance officers 8,873 $28,410 8%

Note: Median wages and educational attainment are for all people working in that occupation in Philadelphia, regardless of where they live.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau, Public Use Microdata Sample, American Community Survey, five-year estimates, 2013-17, accessed using IPUMS-USA, University of Minnesota,

Many of these jobs, if not supplemented by other income, are barely sufficient—and sometimes not sufficient—to keep a household above the poverty line, which is currently $26,200 for a family of four. Job losses could push those households below the line or further below it if they were already there. According to the most recent census data, 377,000 city residents are living in poverty, 24.5% of the total population.

COVID-19’s impact on employment and Philadelphia workers will continue to play out over the coming months, but this data helps to shed light on the city residents employed in the sectors that might experience the biggest effects.

Larry Eichel is a senior adviser and Seth Budick is an officer with Pew’s Philadelphia research and policy initiative.

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