Houston health care sector added 8,000 jobs in June, national numbers up in July

Gwendolyn Wu

Houston added 8,000 jobs in the health care sector in June, recovering from major employment losses for the second month in a row. But analysts said it’s too early to know whether that trend will continue for the rest of the summer.

Job gains in health care across the country last month may be an indicator of what’s to come for Houston’s health care sector. Nationally, health care gained 126,000 jobs in July, primarily in dentist and physician offices, hospital systems and home health care, the Labor Department reported Friday.

The industry, however, still has 800,000 fewer jobs than in February, before the coronavirus began spreading rapidly in the United States.

“It’s counterintuitive, right?” said Steven Scarborough, manager for strategic initiatives at the Center for Houston’s Future, a local think tank. “People would think during a pandemic, health care employment would be in higher demand than ever, but a lot of activity in that sector wasn’t happening.”

Employment has risen as stay-at-home requirements ease and more patients feel comfortable returning to doctors for routine visits. To allay patient fears of crowded waiting rooms and coming into contact with medical professionals who might treat COVID-19 victims, doctors have stocked up on personal protective equipment such as face shields and disposable gloves, limited the number of patients they see each day, and extended business hours.

Orders to halt elective procedures that earn hospitals much of their profits along with delays in federal loan disbursements led many to lay off or furlough workers, Scarborough said.

The health care sector was particularly hard hit in March and April, when an estimated 41,000 health care sector jobs disappeared in Houston, according to Patrick Jankowski, senior vice president of research for the Greater Houston Partnership. Health care regained 27,500 back from May to June,

Employment statistics include more than jobs in the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical complex in the world. The figures include private practices around the region, nursing homes, therapists and many others. Health care accounts for about one in 10 jobs in Houston, according to the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.

Until there is a vaccine and conditions return to normal, it’s hard to tell how long those employment gains will last, analysts said. So long as people across all industries are losing jobs and employer-sponsored insurance, hospitals and doctors may not see the same patient volumes they were before.

Other factors shaping the growth of the industry include the shift to telemedicine and the costs of health insurance plans to employers, which have in recent years pressured insurance companies to tamp down on prices.

The outlook for the rest of the year is “highly uncertain,” Jankowski said.

“My concern is when we hit that steady state where we learn to live with the virus and work around it,” Jankowski said. “There can still be a lot of people out of work. And there are going to be whole sectors of the economy which don’t function.”

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