An additional 27,000 clean-energy workers applied for unemployment in May, according to a June 15 analysis that runs counter to a recent U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics jobs report suggesting nationwide economic recovery.
Overall, 620,000 clean-energy workers, or 18 percent of the workforce, have filed for unemployment since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, according to the analysis produced by Environmental Entrepreneurs (E2), E4TheFuture, American Council on Renewable Energy and BW Research Partnership.
"Despite indications you have heard from BLS [and] the White House that there is a robust economic recovery underway, that's not what we're seeing yet in what—pre-COVID—was one of the fastest-growing sectors in our economy, clean energy," E2 Executive Director Bob Keefe said during a June 15 press conference hosted by the organization. The analysis is the coalition's third monthly report on clean-energy job losses.
BLS in a June 5 report said nonfarm employment had risen by 2.5 million jobs in May, "reflecting a limited resumption of economic activity that had been curtailed due to the coronavirus pandemic and efforts to contain it." But the national rebound has not yet made its way to the clean-energy sector.
BLS acknowledged in its report that data collection has been impacted by the pandemic, with survey response rates from businesses declining compared with previous years' levels. Employment classifications from household survey responses, which, pre-March, were fairly straightforward, have become more complicated as millions of people find themselves in a gray area between being employed and out of work. The bureau also admitted that some portion of the responses was misclassified due to the increased ambiguity.
Phil Jordan, vice president at BW Research Partnership, said during the press conference that the coalition's report measures the number of people who filed for unemployment insurance and have been verified by the government as being unemployed, as opposed to survey responses.
The clean-energy report authors acknowledge that job losses are significantly fewer than what was seen in March and April, due to states reopening and the dispensation of Paycheck Protection Program payroll funds (see CEM No. 1590). California continues to lead the country in job losses for the sector with 4,313, or 1 percent, in May; Arizona reported 359 job losses, or 0.7 percent; Nevada, 149 or 0.5 percent; and New Mexico, 80 or 0.8 percent.
But even as these numbers are an improvement on previous months, Jordan said the coalition is concerned that the impact might represent only a temporary slowdown. The construction sector, which represents the largest portion of clean-energy jobs, is also the largest recipient of Paycheck Protection Program loans. Most companies will soon run out of these funds, which must be used within eight to 10 weeks after they are disbursed, after which the country might see continued or additional layoffs, Jordan said. States such as Arizona are also seeing a resurgence of coronavirus cases post-reopening, which may force local economies to shut down again.
Racial and ethnic minorities also continue to be disproportionately hit with job losses compared with their overall representation in the clean-energy sector. Hispanic and Latino workers have made up 14 percent of clean-energy workers but represent 25 percent of job losses.
Pat Stanton, policy director at E4TheFuture, said during the press conference that the group is urging Congress to enact a two-phase recovery: an immediate phase for workers ready to be put to work in underutilized or vacant public buildings; and a longer-term stimulus strategy. Three letters were sent to congressional leadership on June 2 and 3 urging federal support, including putting energy-efficiency workers back into "mission critical" vacant buildings (see CEM No. 1594).
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin on May 27 extended safe-harbor protections for renewable-energy projects for an additional year; a good start, according to ACORE President Gregory Wetstone, but not enough. He suggested during the press conference that Congress can help the sector by "providing temporary refundability for renewable tax credits facing an increasing constrained tax-equity market and . . . delaying the scheduled phasedown of the production tax credit and the investment tax credit."
Wetstone on June 16 testified before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy Subcommittee of the Committee on Energy and Commerce on these recommendations and the sector's job losses (see related story). "When Congress shifts its focus to longer-term recovery legislation, a comprehensive alignment of the federal tax code, smart policy directives and robust R&D investment would enable the renewable sector to expand its contribution to the nation's economic growth and serve as an effective climate solution over the long haul," Wetstone said.