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NEWS from the Office of the New York State Comptroller
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DiNapoli: New York's Labor Force Decreased Sharply During the Pandemic and Remains Below Pre-Pandemic Peak

North Country and Southern Tier Experienced Double Digit Declines Over the Last Decade

November 22, 2022

New York’s labor force is one of the nation’s largest, but it decreased by 1% between 2011 and 2021 while the rest of the nation increased by 5.1%, according to a report released today by State Comptroller Thomas P. DiNapoli. A rebound took place in the latter half of the last decade before dropping significantly with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. New York continued to lose workers in 2021 when the rest of the nation began to recover. Even as the workforce began growing in 2022, it is still 400,000 workers below the state’s December 2019 peak.

DiNapoli’s report found the long-term decline was due, in part, to population changes and a relatively lower share of workers participating in the workforce. New York’s 10-year average participation rate was 40th in the nation. In 2021, New York’s participation rate was 59%, almost 3 percentage points lower than the rest of the nation.

“New York’s labor force is the backbone of our state’s economy, and its strength has been its diversity, high levels of education and unionization,” DiNapoli said. “But my report shows troubling long-term trends were exacerbated by the pandemic and may be impeding New York’s recovery. Challenges may lie ahead that could negatively affect economic growth and state and local tax collections. Policymakers must give attention to policies that foster labor participation and encourage workforce development.”

DiNapoli’s report also found:

  • Only three of the state’s 10 regional labor markets (Long Island, New York City, and the Hudson Valley) were larger in 2021 than they were in 2011, with the rest of the regions losing workers, including double digit declines in the Southern Tier (-12.6%) and the North Country (-10.2%).
  • New York was one of the first states impacted by COVID-19 and had a pandemic recession that lasted longer than the rest of the U.S. Its unemployment rate was 9.9% in 2020, nearly two percentage points higher than the rest of the nation.
  • By 2021, the state’s 6.9% unemployment rate was the nation’s third highest, led by high unemployment in New York City. The state also had a greater share of underemployed workers (5.3%) than the rest of the nation (4.2%). Underemployed workers include underutilized, marginally attached and discouraged workers. Underutilized workers are employed part-time but want full-time work and constituted a larger share of the workforce in New York (3.8%) compared to the rest of the nation (3%) in 2021.
  • In 2019, New York’s unemployment rate for people with disabilities was at its lowest in over 10 years, but grew in 2020 and remained elevated in 2021, at a rate almost twice that of people without a disability. Labor force participation for this group was 40% in 2020, trailing that for the state as a whole.
  • Labor force participation rates were highest for Hispanics, at just over 61% on average over the 10-year period. Participation rates were lowest for Black workers and decreased from 60.3% in 2014 to a low of 55% in 2020 before rebounding in 2021.
  • New York’s workforce is more highly educated than the nation, with 50.6% of those 25 and older having at least a bachelor’s degree compared to 43.3% nationwide.
  • In New York, 22.2% of employed workers were members of unions in 2021, second highest in the nation. Union members represented 10.3% of all employed workers nationwide in 2021, down from 11.8% in 2011.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics defines the labor force as the portion of the working age population, 16 and over, that is either employed or officially considered unemployed – those who are not employed but have actively looked for work in the previous four-week period. In 2021, there were over 9.4 million New Yorkers in the work force, making up 5.8% of the national labor force and putting the state fourth in the U.S. behind California, Texas, and Florida.

A line graph comparing the labor force growth between New York and the rest of the United States


In New York, women comprised a larger share of the workforce (47.6%) than the rest of the nation (46.9%) in 2021. During the pandemic, men dropped out of the labor force in larger numbers than women. Even as the number of women in the workforce exceeded pre-pandemic levels in 2021, their participation rate (54.1%) remained significantly below that of men (65%) as women remain more likely to be stay-at-home parents and caregivers.


The state’s workforce has become more diverse in the past decade. The share of white workers has declined from 75.8% in 2011 to 70.9% in 2021. When compared to the rest of the nation, New York has greater shares of workers who are Black (16.3% to 12.5%), Asian (10.3% to 6.3%), and Hispanic (18.6% to 18.2%). Between 2011 and 2021, the number of Asian workers in New York grew 43.2% and the number of Hispanic workers grew 22.4%. In 2021, participation rates increased for Asian, Black and Hispanic workers, but continued to decline for white workers.


For both New York and the nation, the labor force is predominantly aged 25 to 64. From 2011 to 2021, although the state’s working age population increased by 3.5%, its labor force decreased by 1%. Compared to the rest of the U.S., the state has a higher share of its labor force that is aged 65 and over. This group grew significantly (32.8%) over the decade and comprised 22.1% of the population in 2021, nearly five percentage points higher than in 2011. Similarly, the number of workers 65 and over rose 42.6%, increasing from 4.9% of the labor force in 2011 to 7.1% in 2021. Between 2020 and 2021, the sharpest decrease in the participation rate was for the youngest age group (ages 16 to 24), which declined by 3.4%.


In the past 10 years, New York’s labor force with a bachelor’s degree or higher increased by 26.3%, growing by over 100,000 workers in 2020 alone. These workers were more likely to telecommute: 40.6% of those with bachelor’s degrees and 54.4% of those with advanced degrees nationwide worked from home due to COVID-19. However, New York’s labor force declined across all other education levels during this period. These shares dropped significantly for those with less than a four-year degree or just a high school diploma.


New York’s Labor Force: Assessing 10-Year Trends and Pandemic Setbacks

Track state and local government spending at Open Book New York. Under State Comptroller DiNapoli’s open data initiative, search millions of state and local government financial records, track state contracts, and find commonly requested data.