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COVID-19 could cost Houston 44,000 jobs by the end of the year, says local economist

According to a new study, Houston is among the cities most vulnerable to job loss due to the recession caused by COVID-19. Getty Images

No matter whether the outlook leans more toward optimism or pessimism, Houston stands to lose a head-spinning number of jobs in the grips of a coronavirus-induced recession.

Economist Bill Gilmer, director of the Institute for Regional Forecasting at the University of Houston's Bauer College of Business, says a moderate recession could drain as many as 44,000 jobs from the regional economy by the end of 2020. That's out of nearly 3.2 million workers in the Houston metro area.

The job figures might look "much worse" through the second and third quarters of this year, Gilmer says. However, he adds, Houston's job losses should be followed by a "quick recovery" in 2021.

A study published March 27 by personal finance website SmartAsset predicts an even greater impact on employment in Houston.

SmartAsset forecasts 56,469 full-time and part-time jobs in just the city of Houston, or nearly 5 percent of the local workforce, could be lost in a coronavirus recession. In all, more than 282,000 jobs, or 24.6 percent of the city's workforce, could be in jeopardy, according to the study.

John Diamond, director of the Center for Public Finance at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, says he thinks Smart Asset's job-loss estimate is "decent" but might be too low.

In light of the federal government's extension of social-distancing guidelines to April 30 and perhaps further extensions, Diamond believes Houston will suffer "substantial" job losses in the next two to four months. After the social-distancing rules are relaxed, Diamond expects an employment bounce-back later in the year.

"The recovery could be rapid if business supply chains and networks remain intact," Diamond says, "and if oil prices rebound by the end of the year."

For his part, Ed Hirs, an economics lecturer at the University of Houston, pessimistically envisions about 300,000 people in the Houston metro area will lose their jobs, at least in the short term, due to the coronavirus recession and the recent plunge in oil prices. (By comparison, the Economic Policy Institute projects the entire state of Texas will lose 442,717 private-sector jobs as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.)

"COVID-19 is going to be kind of a catch-all spring cleaning excuse for a lot of the oil and gas companies as they try to reduce their payroll," Hirs says.

For now, though, concerns about the oil war between Russia and Saudi Arabia must "take a back seat" to concerns about COVID-19, he says.

Aside from the energy industry, the escalating economic slump promises to hit several other prominent business sectors in Houston, including hospitality and manufacturing. Hirs thinks a recession could shrink Houston's 2020 economic output by 10 percent.

"This is across the board," he says, "and has the potential to be extraordinarily devastating."

ThinkWhy, a labor analysis firm, believes the impact of the COVID-outbreak on the Houston job market will be more evident in the blow it delivers to international trade than in any boost it provides to the health care sector. "But the pandemic will no doubt have an impact on both," the firm says.

It's already having a tremendous impact on small and midsize businesses in the Houston area. A March 23-28 survey by the Greater Houston Partnership found 34 percent of those businesses already had reduced their headcounts in response to the COVID-19 slowdown. And 55 percent said they're unsure whether they'll wind up carrying out permanent layoffs in the next six months.

"Houstonians like to embrace the notion that their metro was among the last to enter the Great Recession and was among the first to exit. That's not going to be the case this time," economist Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research at the Greater Houston Partnership, wrote in an unvarnished economic assessment published March 20. "All three pillars of Houston's economy — energy, global trade, and the U.S. economy — are tottering. The next 12 to 18 months will likely be very rough for Houston."

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A new AI-optimized COVID screening device, a free response resource, and more — here's your latest roundup of research news. Image via Getty Images

Researchers across the Houston area are working on COVID-19 innovations every day, and scientists are constantly finding new ways this disease is affecting humankind.

From a COVID breathalyzer to a new collaboration in Houston — here's your latest roundup of local coronavirus research news.

A&M System to collaborate on a COVID-19 breathalyzer

A prototype of the device will be used on the Texas A&M campus. Photo via tamu.edu

Researchers at Texas A&M University System are collaborating on a new device that uses artificial intelligence in a breathalyzer situation to detect whether individuals should be tested for COVID-19. The technology is being developed through a collaboration with Dallas-based company, Worlds Inc., and the U.S. Air Force.

The device is called Worlds Protect and a patient can use a disposable straw to blow into a copper inlet. In less than a minute, test results can be sent to the person's smartphone. Worlds Inc. co-founders Dave Copps and Chris Rohde envision Worlds Protect kiosks outside of highly populated areas to act as a screening process, according to a news release.

"People can walk up and, literally, just breathe into the device," says Rohde, president of Worlds Inc., in the release. "It's completely noninvasive. There's no amount of touching. And you quickly get a result. You get a yay or nay."

The university system has contributed $1 million in the project's development and is assisting Worlds Inc. with engineering and design, prototype building and the mapping of a commercial manufacturing process. According to the release, the plan was to test the prototypes will be tried out this fall on the Texas A&M campus.

"Getting tech innovations to market is one of our sweet spots," says John Sharp, chancellor of the Texas A&M System, in the release. "This breakthrough could have lasting impact on global public health."

Baylor College of Medicine researchers to determine cyclosporine’s role in treating hospitalized COVID-19 patients

BCM researchers are looking into the treatment effect of an existing drug on COVID-19 patients. Photo via BCM.edu

The Baylor College of Medicine has launched a randomized clinical trial to look into how the drug cyclosporine effects the prevention of disease progression in pre-ICU hospitalized COVID-19 patients. The drug has been used for about 40 years to prevent rejection of organ transplants and to treat patients with rheumatoid arthritis and psoriasis.

"The rationale is strong because the drug has a good safety profile, is expected to target the body's hyperimmune response to COVID and has been shown to directly inhibit human coronaviruses in the lab," says Dr. Bryan Burt, chief of thoracic surgery in the Michael E. DeBakey Department of Surgery at Baylor, says in a press release.

Burt initiated this trial and BCM is the primary site for the study, with some collaboration with Brigham and Women's. The hypothesis is that the drug will help prevent the cytokine storm that patients with COVID-19 experience that causes their health to decline rapidly, according to the release.

The study, which is funded by Novartis, plans to enroll 75 hospitalized COVID-19 patients at Baylor St. Luke's Medical Center who are not in the ICU. There will be an initial evaluation at six months but Burt expects to have the final study results in one year.

Rice launches expert group to help guide pandemic response

A new response team is emerging out of a collaboration led by Rice University. Photo courtesy of Rice

Rice University is collaborating with other Houston institutions to create the Biomedical Expert Panel, supported by Texas Policy Lab, to assist officials in long-term pandemic recovery.

"Not all agencies and decision-makers have an in-house epidemiologist or easy access to leaders in infectious disease, immunology and health communications," says Stephen Spann, chair of the panel and founding dean of the University of Houston College of Medicine, in a news release. "This panel is about equity. We must break out of our knowledge siloes and face this challenge together, with a commitment to inclusivity and openness."

The purpose of the panel is to be available as a free resource to health departments, social service agencies, school districts and other policymakers. The experts will help design efficient public health surveillance plans, advise on increasing testing capacity and access for underserved communities, and more.

"The precise trajectory of the local epidemic is difficult to predict, but we know that COVID-19 will continue to be a long-term challenge," says E. Susan Amirian, an epidemiologist who leads the TPL's health program, in the release. "Although CDC guidelines offer a good foundation, there is no one-size-fits-all approach when managing a crisis of this magnitude across diverse communities with urgent needs."

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