Skagit County residents have filed more than 20,000 first-time claims for unemployment benefits since March, with job losses in the thousands in food service, retail, construction, manufacturing, and personal care and services, according to data from the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
“Devastating is the only word I can think of,” said John Sternlicht, CEO of the Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County (EDASC).
Job losses stacked up as restaurants and non-essential retail were shut down, and events and festivals canceled, during the COVID-19 pandemic. Sternlicht said there are also many indirect impacts felt in essential industries.
Hospitals are facing budget crises after cutting non-essential procedures to prepare for an influx of COVID-19 patients. Farmers and farmworkers are hurting due to an upheaval in the supply chain and a collapse in markets for products such as fresh-cut flowers.
Sternlicht said the government sector will feel a blow in lost tax revenue from falling retail sales.
“It’s really getting hit on so many different levels,” he said. “Whereas a recession might be more limited, this is worldwide and includes more sectors.”
Sternlicht said he anticipates employment will slowly increase as more businesses reopen. But don’t expect a return to normal.
“If you’re a restaurant or barbershop — which is only able to operate in the next upcoming phase at half capacity — you’re not going to be at what you were (before the pandemic),” he said.
Sternlicht said EDASC is working with Skagit County to prepare an economic recovery plan.
Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist for the ESD, said tourism-reliant counties — such as Skagit and others bordering saltwater — have been hardest hit during the pandemic.
The manufacturing sector is also hurting. Vance-Sherman said as Boeing and other aircraft manufacturers slowed down production due to falling demand for air travel, it affected other businesses in the supply chain.
The pandemic is affecting some workers more than others.
“(Workers) in leisure and hospitality — who have some of the least ability to work from home — and therefore are more likely to be unemployed, and have lower benefits and access to paid leave,” Vance-Sherman said during an economic update at a virtual Port of Anacortes Commission meeting Thursday.
First-time unemployment claims from March 8 to May 9 in Skagit County accounted for 26% of the county’s labor force, Vance-Sherman said during the update.
Out of the state’s 39 counties, Skagit ranked sixth by percentage of first-time unemployment claims as a percentage of the labor force, according to the presentation.
Vance-Sherman said this figure helps show the magnitude of unemployment, though it is not the unemployment rate.
The ESD is set to release the county’s April unemployment rate — along with job losses by sector — on Tuesday.
The state lost 527,000 jobs in April, and the unemployment rate was 15.4%, according to the ESD. The state’s unemployment rate in March was 5.1%.
Vance-Sherman said the highest unemployment rate during the Great Recession that ran from December 2007 to June 2009 was just over 10%.
She said the current economic downturn is in a category of its own, akin to a natural or man-made disaster.
“(It was) extremely swift and extremely harsh,” she said.
She said it’s unlikely there will be a quick recovery of the economy — especially the longer businesses are shut down.
Vance-Sherman said she expects businesses to find long-term adaptations, and turn more to automation, as face-to-face human contact becomes a liability.