Ambulatory services—healthcare's largest employer—took the biggest hit during the shutdown, and it is taking longer than the overall industry to rebound. The sector added 126,200 jobs last month, compared with 367,800 in June. Dentist and physician clinics suffered the most losses at the height of the shutdowns. Ambulatory employment was down just 3.9% in July compared with pre-pandemic January.
The pace of job recovery is likely tempered by providers' own caution against reopening too quickly, especially in areas where coronavirus cases are surging, Shehata said. In areas like the Southern U.S. where there have been aggressive reopenings, ambulatory providers have been slowed by backlogs in appointments due to pent-up demand.
Overall, the economy added 1.8 million jobs and the unemployment rate fell 0.9 percentage points to 10.2%. The biggest job gains were in leisure and hospitality and food services and drinking places. The number of people on temporary layoff fell to 9.2 million, about half its April level.
Hospitals furloughed and laid off employees as they shut down divisions, but that didn't cause as big of an employment hit compared with the ambulatory sector. Hospital employment was down just 1.2% last month from January.
"I was a little surprised that in hospitals it's not worse than that," said Ani Turner, Altarum's co-director of sustainable health spending strategies.
Hospitals added an estimated 27,400 jobs in July, far more than the 2,100 they added in June—a number the BLS revised down from its initial June projection of 6,700 jobs.
That still leaves the question of whether hospitals will continue to regain jobs, or if job growth will level off at a point that's below normal. Federal grants and loans providers received under the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act offered a boost, but things are uncertain moving forward, Turner said.
"We'll see what the final new equilibrium is," she said.
Nursing homes continue to shed jobs even as the rest of the healthcare industry does the opposite. They lost 17,500 jobs in July and employed 7.7% fewer people last month than in January. Overall, nursing and residential care facilities have shed about 220,000 jobs since March.
Even before the pandemic, nursing home employment had been shrinking as older adults and their families opted for less intensive residential care facilities in lieu of nursing homes, Turner said.
COVID-19 has prompted more people to avoid all types of residential facilities for older adults, though, because the coronavirus tended to spread quickly through facilities where residents are older, have chronic conditions and require frequent care.
The pandemic laid bare long-running infection control and staffing problems in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, which is where a significant proportion of COVID-19 deaths are believed to have occurred.
It's possible that trend is driving an increased demand for home health services, Shehata said. Indeed, home health added 15,600 jobs in July, after having added 18,100 in June.
The pace at which healthcare jobs return is going to be a local and even regional story, with wide variation depending on the level of coronavirus activity in an area, Shehata said.
"If the economy is back to productivity, you're going to see that backlog begin to flow into the healthcare system," he said.