Post hurricane recovery efforts drive a turning point in the local labor market

November 6, 2018
Employment is finally growing driven by the efforts to rebuild the infrastructure damaged by hurricane María. Most sectors will benefit from the improved infrastructure and from the higher consumption coming from a larger labor force. Employment growth has spread unevenly with some municipalities struggling to recover while others reaching higher employment than before María.

Total employment in Puerto Rico reached pre-hurricane levels in September 2018 (1,007k people compared to 975k in September 2017, place cursor in interactive Figure 1). The employment gap between the Household Survey and the Payroll Survey* (which excludes agriculture and self-employment) has widened since Maria, meaning that the self-employed were a key driver of employment recovery in the past months**.


Aside from the potential increase in self-employed workers in Puerto Rico, how have economic sectors fared in Puerto Rico in terms of employment since the hurricane? The Department of Labor and Human Resources (DLHR) publishes detailed data of the number of establishments and total employment by industry (including Agriculture) and by municipality on a quarterly basis. The data is obtained from quarterly reports submitted by employers as part of the requirements from the Puerto Rico Employment Security Act (Act No. 74 of June 21, 1956). The most recent information available from this survey is for Q1 2018 and it provides relevant insights of the employment performance in the 6 months after hurricane María.

The first thing that needs to be noted is that the payroll employment decrease did not start with hurricane María but was rather a long-lasting trend that started in Q3 2012 (see Figure 1). Secondly, since María the industries related to recovery efforts have been the ones driving employment generation (see Figure 2). The Construction sector experienced an increase of 4,350 employees in the six months after the hurricane. The Administrative & Support and Waste Management and Remediation Services sector showed the largest increase with 7,516 employees. This is a very broad category, but the Occupational Employment Statistics published by the DLHR can shed some further light on the sector. Based on this data, 32% of this industry`s employment is comprised of Security Guards and 19% of Building and Grounds Cleaning and Maintenance occupations.


The increase in recovery related employment masks the sharp reduction in key private sectors like Retail Trade (-8,005), Accommodation and Food Services (-6,776) or Health Care and Social Assistance (-5,171). Given the Government budgetary difficulties, the public sector employment continued reducing in the six months after hurricane María (-3,417).

The recovery efforts after hurricane María may represent a turning point in the negative trend being experienced in the labor market. We already see signs of that in the DLHR numbers, and the coming wave of recovery funds are expected to continue to drive employment growth. Additionally, they will have a spillover effect on other sectors, particularly on the retail industry (largest sector with 17% of non-public employment) through increased consumption. But just like the construction boom experienced in Puerto Rico before, the economic impact from recovery efforts will be temporary and that period should be used to improve the ease of doing business in the Island. The fact that Puerto Rico ranked 32 in the last World Economic Forum`s Global Competitive Index available (year 2014-15***) shows us that there is much room for improvement.

Regarding employment recovery by geography, the interactive Figure 3 can help us understand which municipalities experienced the sharpest increases/decreases in the number of employed people in the first six months after the hurricane. As can be observed in the map, most of the municipalities in the trajectory of María suffered larger employment reductions compared to the overall PR reduction.

The four largest decreases took place in Vieques, Río Grande, Adjuntas, and Maricao. The dropdown list in Figure 2 can be used to understand the industries in which these reductions were larger for each municipality. For instance, in the case of Vieques and Río Grande, the Accommodation and Food Services industry suffered the most during that period, with reductions of 778 employees in Río Grande (13% of total employment in September 2017) and 297 in Vieques (19% of total employment in September 2017). The re-opening of the St. Regis Bahía Beach Resort and the Melíá Coco Beach in December should offset, at least partially, the Accommodation and Food Services employment reduction in Río Grande. The St. Regis alone is expected to employ approximately 350 people following a $60 million renovation.

On the other side, Santa Isabel experienced a 35% employment increase, while Loíza, Las Marías, Sabana Grande and Cataño experienced employment increases of 12.2%, 11.5%, 8.4% and 8.2%, respectively. In the case of Santa Isabel, the increase is mainly driven by seasonal factors related to the harvest season. However, the investment of Monsanto in Santa Isabel and other southern municipalities is a promising indication of the competitive advantages that Puerto Rico may have in some agricultural niches.

Unfortunately, in the case of Loíza, Las Marías and Cataño the main driver of the employment increase was not the private sector but rather the public administration. However, it is important to notice the increase of 124 employees in Cataño in the Wholesale Trade sector during the 6 months after María (14% increase annualized). Finally, it is worth mentioning that Sabana Grande`s increase was mainly driven by the manufacturing sector which employed 598 people in September 2017 and 758 in March of 2018. Among the most populous municipalities, Guaynabo showed the largest increase (4%) with services sectors like Finance and Insurance, Professional Scientific and Technical Services and Wholesale Trade driving the largest employment increases (749, 516 and 355, respectively).

In summary, the initial sectorial employment indicators after hurricane María show us how the construction and recovery related sector are driving the employment growth and will certainly spillover to other sectors as the recovery funds continue to come. While most municipalities suffered the effects of María in terms of employment we can find various success stories with total employment in March 2018 above pre-hurricane levels.


* Employment figures are generated by the Department of Labor and Human Resources mainly through the Household and Payroll surveys. The Household Survey consists of visits performed to a sample of households while the Payroll Survey data is obtained directly from the payroll of businesses operating in Puerto Rico.
** This conclusion depends on trusting that the gap is not driven by methodological or statistical issues.
*** The 2015-16 Global Competitiveness Report stated that Puerto Rico, along with other countries, could not be included in the competitiveness index due to absence of data.


Household and Payroll surveys, Quarterly Tables with Employment by Industrial Sector and Municipality, analysis by “Financial Institutions Practice” V2A.


Accuracy and Currency of Information: Information throughout this “Insight” is obtained from sources which we believe are reliable, but we do not warrant or guarantee the timeliness or accuracy of this information. While the information is considered to be true and correct at the date of publication, changes in circumstances after the time of publication may impact the accuracy of the information. The information may change without notice and V2A is not in any way liable for the accuracy of any information printed and stored, or in any way interpreted and used by a user.

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