Washington (AFP)

As the coronavirus spread in the United States, the country's workforce has split into two categories of people: those who can work from home, and those who can't.

Waiters, hotel workers, tourist attractions and other personal service companies were among the hardest hit by the wave of layoffs, as were workers at the bottom.

While the pandemic is far from over, analysts predict that inequality in the world's largest economy will worsen.

"Qualified people, who are doing well and are telecommuting, will ask their employers for practical arrangements for them," said Jesse Rothstein, a former economist with the Department of Labor who now teaches at the University of California.

Low-skilled workers, meanwhile, "will take more risks for less money".

Jerome Powell, the head of the US Federal Reserve (Fed), described the pandemic as "a big driver of inequality".

But experts believe it is not inevitable, especially if Congress passes new measures to support struggling businesses and consumers.

"We have the opportunity to improve the situation, even compared to before, but it will not happen by itself. It takes political will," says Claudia Sahm, a former Fed economist and Washington researcher. Center for Economic Growth.

- Unequal recession -

When the Covid-19 pandemic arrived in the United States, unemployment was at an all-time low - 3.5% in February according to official statistics - and long-stagnant wages were just starting to rise.

But the job market was not as healthy as it looked.

The private sector job quality index (JQI), a statistic the government uses to assess the balance between well paid and unpaid jobs (excluding managers), has been declining for years.

In February, this index was at its lowest level since March 2012, as many jobs created were paid below the weekly average.

According to a study published last year by the Brookings Institution, 44% of American workers receive "low income", with a median income of only $ 18,000 a year.

As a result of containment measures, unemployment reached 14.7% in April, a level never seen since the Great Depression of almost a century ago, and the economy is now heading for an almost certain recession.

Government experts consider the dismissals to be temporary.

But Michael Weber, a professor at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, warns that if companies close or downsize, job seekers will compete against each other, which will lower wages, a typical recession trend.

- Who is hiring? -

Supermarket chain Kroger, online retail giant Amazon and several fast food chains have announced massive hires in recent months.

But "these are the same employers who have been criticized for years for paying unreasonably low wages," says Michael Weber. "They are often linked to precarious income situations," he adds.

Robert Hockett of Cornell University said employees should claim risk premiums for working in environments exposed to contagion.

The Fed also reported this week that employers in the Boston area had temporarily increased wages by 30%, for this reason. Amazon increased its minimum wage by $ 15 an hour for warehouse positions by $ 2.

In practice, the unemployed may have no choice, especially if Congress fails to extend loans to SMEs and unemployment benefits put in place by the titanic $ 2.2 trillion stimulus package approved in March.

Donald Trump's government has been reluctant to spend more on workers' supports, predicting that the coronavirus will be defeated and that the economy will rebound in July.

But many economists doubt a rapid recovery. "We're walking on a tightrope right now," said Robert Hockett.

© 2020 AFP