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The COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Employment and Working Life in Europe

The COVID-19 pandemic has been a global disruptor, causing unprecedented shifts in the world’s socio-economic landscape. The European employment sector has not been spared, with the crisis triggering significant changes in working life and affecting various sectors and categories of workers in different ways.

Let’s have a look into the initial impact of the pandemic on employment across Europe, the strategies employed to alleviate the crisis, and the significant role social partners have played in these endeavours.

The Employment Landscape: A Year into the Pandemic

In the year leading up to Spring 2020, the European Union (EU) experienced a significant shift in its employment landscape. Employment declined by 2.4%, a figure that represents a substantial number of jobs lost across the region. The weekly working hours of those still employed fell by nearly an hour, indicating a reduction in economic activity.

Furthermore, the proportion of workers employed but not working more than doubled to 17%, suggesting an increase in underemployment. This paints a picture of a labour market under significant stress, with many workers facing reduced hours or job loss.

The Shift to Telework: A New Normal

By July 2020, the pandemic had forced almost half of the EU workforce to transition to full or partial telework. This shift was necessitated by the need to maintain social distancing and limit the spread of the virus. However, the move to telework was not uniform across all sectors and demographics, leading to new disparities in the labour market. This shift has not only changed the way we work but also highlighted the digital divide in our societies, with those having access to technology and digital skills being able to adapt more easily.

Furthermore, the surge in telework can be seen as a significant driver of the growth of non-standard employment. Traditionally, full-time office work has been the standard employment model. The rapid rise of telework, particularly unplanned and temporary as it was in this case, represents a move towards a more diverse and flexible work landscape.

The Unequal Impact: Education, Location, and Age

Those with higher education and those residing in urban areas were better positioned to work from home. This is likely due to the nature of jobs in these demographics, which are more likely to be in sectors that can accommodate remote work, such as technology, finance, and administration. On the other hand, workers in sectors like manufacturing, retail, and hospitality, which require physical presence, were more adversely affected. This highlights the uneven impact of the pandemic across different sectors and the need for targeted support measures.

Young people experienced the most significant drop in employment. This could be attributed to their overrepresentation in sectors hit hardest by the pandemic, such as hospitality and retail. Meanwhile, prime-aged workers (25–54 years) and older male workers were more likely to have their working hours reduced, reflecting the broad impact of the crisis across different age groups. This underscores the need for policies that address the specific challenges faced by different demographic groups.

Short-time Working Schemes: A Buffer against Job Losses

In response to the crisis, many countries implemented short-term working schemes and similar employment protection measures. These schemes allowed companies to reduce their employees’ working hours while the government compensated for a portion of the lost income.

This approach helped to buffer the impact of COVID-19 on the labour market, preventing mass layoffs and helping businesses stay afloat. However, the effectiveness of these schemes varied across countries, highlighting the need for a more coordinated and harmonised approach to employment protection.

Income Protection for the Self-employed: A Step Forward, Yet Insufficient

The COVID-19 crisis has spurred most countries to extend income protection to previously unprotected groups, including the self-employed. This is a significant step forward, as it recognises the growing importance of non-standard forms of employment in today’s economy. However, the support provided to the self-employed often falls short of the protection offered to workers. The eligibility criteria for these schemes included sectoral restrictions, limitations to certain groups of self-employed, and requirements to meet income reduction thresholds. This suggests that while progress has been made, there is still a long way to go in ensuring adequate protection for all workers, regardless of their employment status.

The Role of Social Partners in Crisis Management

The involvement of social partners and other stakeholders in these schemes is essential to prevent unforeseen exclusion related to eligibility and other anomalies. Their participation in the development and implementation of measures has been instrumental in addressing the socioeconomic impact of the pandemic.

Social partners, including employers’ organisations and trade unions, have a crucial role to play in shaping policies that are fair and inclusive. Their insights and expertise can help ensure that the measures implemented are effective and responsive to the needs of workers and businesses alike. They can also play a key role in promoting social dialogue and consensus-building, which are crucial for the successful implementation of these measures.

Looking Ahead: The Post-Pandemic Future

As we look towards a post-pandemic future, it is clear that the world of work will not be the same. The shift to remote work, the increased use of digital technologies, and the changes in employment patterns are likely to persist, at least to some extent. This will require new approaches to employment policy, including measures to support digital skills development, promote flexible working arrangements, and ensure adequate protection for all workers.


Moreover, the pandemic has highlighted the importance of resilience in our labour markets. This includes not only the ability to withstand shocks but also the capacity to adapt and evolve in response to changing circumstances. Building such resilience will require concerted efforts from all stakeholders, including governments, employers, workers, and social partners.


The COVID-19 pandemic has undeniably reshaped employment and working life in Europe. The crisis has highlighted the need for robust and flexible employment protection measures, particularly for vulnerable groups such as the young and the self-employed. As Europe navigates the aftermath of the pandemic, the involvement of social partners will remain crucial in designing policies that ensure a fair and inclusive recovery.



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