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Consumer sector drives US job losses in March but worse days ahead – experts

Restaurants and retailers were among the industries that led U.S. job losses in March stemming from the coronavirus pandemic, but experts believe the full impact of the crisis across the consumer sector and broader economy is yet to be seen.

"We are seeing only the tip of a very nasty iceberg that we are heading towards," Erica Groshen, senior extension faculty member at the Cornell University School of Industrial and Labor Relations and ex-commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, said in an emailed note.

The U.S. economy shed 701,000 jobs in March as consumer-focused industries contributed to more than half of the losses.

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The leisure and hospitality industry led the decline with the loss of 459,000 jobs, a decrease of 2.72% from February, data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed. Food services and drinking places, a sector within leisure and hospitality, lost 417,000 jobs during the month.

The retail sector shed 46,000 jobs, with furniture and home furnishings accounting for 10,400 jobs lost. Clothing and clothing accessories stores lost 16,300 jobs, a month-over-month decrease of 1.27%.

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The U.S. Labor Department conducted the surveys during the second week of March, before statewide stay-at-home orders were put in place and before retailers began mass layoffs and furloughs.

READ MORE: Sign up for our weekly coronavirus newsletter here, and read our latest coverage on the crisis here.

Companies including J. C. Penney Co. Inc., The Gap Inc., Kohl's Corp., Macy's Inc. and Nordstrom Inc. announced furloughs in late March amid extended store closures due to the pandemic. In the two weeks ended March 28, nearly 10 million people successfully filed new claims for unemployment benefits.

The data "broadly reflects" some of the early effects of the pandemic on the labor market, the Labor Department said, adding that it "cannot precisely quantify the effects of the pandemic on the job market in March."

While the industries most affected by the pandemic drove job losses in March, experts expect broader fallout from the virus the following month.

"Unfortunately, this is likely just the first in a series of very negative reports, since many more Americans lost jobs after the survey week," Groshen said in a note.

Leisure and hospitality companies will likely shed more jobs as a broader swath of industries also starts layoffs, Groshen said. Wages and hours for workers could also be cut, she said.

Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics, said in an email that sectors like retail, leisure and hospitality are on "the front lines of the coronavirus shock, but losses will be much broader in April."

The employment report indicates that this is just the beginning of "a string of massive declines in hiring" as businesses across the U.S. are shuttered and many states force workers to stay at home, Lindsey Piegza, chief economist at Stifel, said in a research note.

The number of Americans filing for unemployment benefits increased to a record seasonally adjusted level of 6.65 million in the week ended March 28, the Labor Department reported April 2. "[Yesterday's] claims report holds considerably more weight for the market in terms of understanding the growing impact of the coronavirus on the domestic labor market," Piegza said.

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The employment numbers show "just the leading edge of the deep recession we are certainly now in," said Elise Gould, senior economist at the Economic Policy Institute.

"Despite already being genuinely out-of-date, today's data provide some important information about the early days of the labor market crisis we are now in," Gould said in an April 3 report.