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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on April 22nd, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 8 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 21, Issue 8

Unemployment rates in the county increase, Workforce Development Board goes virtual

By Malea Martin

Unemployment rates in Santa Barbara County—at first glance—don’t appear too out of the ordinary. At 5.6 percent unemployed, the county had the exact same rate in March as the state of California as a whole, according to the county’s Workforce Development Board Executive Director Raymond McDonald.

But when compared to last year’s numbers, a different picture emerges: Santa Barbara County’s unemployment rate was just 4.7 percent in March 2019. And before the COVID-19 pandemic, the county consistently had lower unemployment rates than the state overall. 

McDonald explained that because the pandemic is a statewide hit to the economy, rather than a more regional or localized situation, it means that it’s being felt more universally than usual.

“It shows that everybody across the state is suffering from the stay-at-home order and the layoffs that are ensuing,” he told the Sun. “Normally Santa Barbara County has such a strong hospitality sector that goes year-round. That’s generally the reason why we’re running a little bit lower on unemployment than the state as a whole.” 

McDonald explained that Santa Barbara’s economy is typically very consistent, as it relies on a year-round tourism industry. Santa Maria’s economy, he said, is not as consistent year round, and as such has become accustomed to weathering these fluctuations in the past.

“The biggest shock to the system is the city of Santa Barbara and the South County area, only because they’re not used to being impacted like this, whereas the rest of the county has gone through ups and downs,” McDonald said.

But having experienced economic ups and downs in the past doesn’t make it easy. Because this crisis is of unprecedented proportions, it’s difficult to compare to the past, a reality that McDonald emphasized. 

Santa Maria is still taking a heavy hit with a March unemployment rate of 10.8 percent, more than 5 percent higher than the county as a whole. Furthermore, McDonald predicted that numbers will be higher in next month’s report in a special coronavirus email update from the Workforce Development Board on April 17.

“I can’t use anything in the past as a barometer,” McDonald told the Sun. “We’re in new territory.”

Another unexpected facet of the economy that McDonald has noticed is that more restaurant workers are out of their jobs than hotel workers. This might be due to the fact that some hotel management positions can function even with closures, whereas restaurant service positions—particularly waiters—are largely dependent on having customers in seats.

McDonald also said that looking at data for entire sectors can be deceiving. For example, while grocery stores mostly continue to thrive, the “retail” sector that these stores fall under is overall taking a hit.

“The other retailers like Macy’s and all the other big shopping centers are closing down, at least temporarily,” he said. “So that’s overshadowing what’s happening at the grocery stores.”

While social distancing presents challenges for the Workforce Development Board as it tries to assist struggling businesses and laid off employees, the board’s Business Services Strategist Alma Janabajab said that the board is working to get virtual resources off the ground.

“On a regular occasion, when a business is laying off or downsizing, I would be the person that they would contact, or I would get information like the WARN notice,” she said of the pre-pandemic process. 

WARN—which stands for Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification—requires that employers give a 60-day notice to employees before either closing or enacting a mass layoff, usually of more than 50 employees. While the WARN notice requirement was temporarily suspended as a result of COVID-19, Janabajab said that local businesses have continued to be diligent about notifying employees and the Workforce Development Board when they are experiencing difficulties. 

For the board, continuing to receive this notification is vital to begin building a plan for recovery once the crisis has passed.

“This way, we know the businesses that are being affected, and then as we work toward economic recovery we’ll be able to have that contact information so we can reach out back to these businesses and hopefully help them get back on their feet,” Janabajab said.

In the meantime, the board is putting together a Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act webinar, which basically teaches affected employers and employees about what resources they have at their disposal. Case managers are also available for virtual appointments.

“We’re starting to think about that: How do we prepare our businesses, our community, to recover after all this?” Janabajab said. “We don’t want to wait until it’s time to do it: We want to actually start preparing now.”










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