The number of self-employed people in the U.S. has returned to pre-pandemic levels, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis. While their rebound is a testament to entrepreneurs' resilience, it's also a commentary on just how bad the pandemic was for many Americans. 

Around 14.8 million people identified as self-employed during the second quarter of 2019, according to the Pew report. And in the second quarter of this year, the number of self-employed workers bounced back to 14.9 million, after dropping to 12.7 million workers the year before. Around 16 million workers now identify as self-employed out of the approximately 150 million people in the workforce. 

Pew concludes that while the pandemic similarly affected employment levels for the self-employed and those who are not self-employed, the former has seen a stronger rebound in employment numbers. Employment levels for those who are not self-employed clocked in at approximately 131 million people during the second quarter of this year, which is still 4.3 percent shy of where employment levels stood in 2019.

That's not necessarily surprising, says Keith Hall, the president and CEO of the National Association for the Self-Employed (NASE). Hall explains that many self-employed people today find themselves in this position not because it's their dream, but because their place of employment closed or laid them off. 

People are going to find a way to take care of their families, Hall adds, and self-employment is a way to do so. "Typically the harder you work, the more successful you're going to be, so people [are putting] their own effort into building something that they own," he says. "I think that speaks to resiliency, not only to self-employment as a whole, but for the American people as a whole."

Despite the rebound in self-employment numbers, these businesses, by their very nature, don't tend to churn out as many jobs. So once Americans start to re-engage with the workforce en masse, a lack of available employment opportunities could pose a headwind to economic growth. The U.S. Census Bureau shows that just over 40 percent of new business filing applications in October, the most recent month for which information is available, fall into this category. That could be another challenge businesses will need to tackle as they figure out how to navigate smaller payrolls. 

Still, on an individual level, a smaller payroll itself doesn't suggest a lack of success, says Hall. "That is offset by the increase in small business ownership." He adds that he expects to see a continued uptick in the self-employed business sector.