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News / Business / Clark County Business

Expert gauges COVID-19’s potential effect on Clark County’s job market

By Anthony Macuk, Columbian business reporter
Published: March 29, 2020, 6:05am
5 Photos
Trucks drive under a sign on Interstate 5 reading &quot;Stay home, limit travel&quot; in Vancouver on Tuesday. Transportation is one segment not impacted as deeply, although airlines are hurting.
Trucks drive under a sign on Interstate 5 reading "Stay home, limit travel" in Vancouver on Tuesday. Transportation is one segment not impacted as deeply, although airlines are hurting. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

The ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus COVID-19 has already had a profound effect on Clark County’s job market, and the impact is likely to get worse in the coming weeks as the newest round of public containment measures make themselves felt.

Some nonessential businesses may find ways to continue operations with employees working from home, but others depend on physically staffed locations and will have no choice but to stay closed while Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order is in place.

Regional labor economist Scott Bailey releases a monthly report summarizing data from the state Employment Security Department. The full impact of the coronavirus on local jobs likely won’t be seen until the March report comes out in mid-April, but a weekly report released on Thursday painted a stark picture of where things are headed.

Clark County initial unemployment claims jumped 1,575 percent to 6,249, compared with 373 claims the prior week. Year-to-date claims were up 2,249 percent compared with the same point in 2019.

Washington and Oregon’s unemployment insurance programs will likely require support from the federal government to avoid becoming overwhelmed, Bailey said, and the states will also suffer diminished revenue from sales and income taxes.

“This is a tsunami,” Bailey said last week.

The most recent monthly jobs report — from January — provides a snapshot of the structure of Clark County’s job market just before the outbreak began. When examined in conjunction with Inslee’s list of essential businesses, the report offers some insight into which sectors could see the most trouble in the coming weeks.

Clark County’s total resident employment was estimated at 237,336 in January, and the county had 169,700 nonfarm jobs, including both public- and private-sector workers.

The gap between those numbers is due primarily to commuters, Bailey said — people who live in Clark County but work elsewhere, such as in Portland — as well as self-employed people and agricultural workers, who aren’t counted in the jobs number.

The monthly reports group jobs into 10 sectors — government, plus nine others that comprise the county’s private-sector workforce. Here is a look at each:

1. Trade, transportation and utilities – 29,900 jobs

Clark County’s biggest employment sector covers a wide range of subcategories including wholesale trade, retail stores and transportation jobs.

The potential job losses vary between subcategories, Bailey said. Some wholesalers are going to see a major negative impact, along with motor vehicle retailers and some personal care retailers. A makeup store, for example, would likely find itself looking at cutbacks, he said.

On the other hand, grocery stores have been seeing a huge surge in customer traffic in recent weeks, prompting many retailers such as Safeway and WinCo to go on hiring sprees. That positive wave extends to department stores that include grocery components, Bailey said, such as Fred Meyer and Walmart.

Nongrocery department stores and a whole host of specialty stores such as bookstores are going to suffer through the shutdown or go online-only. Pet supply outlets and a few other specialty stores are considered essential, Bailey said, but their economic fortunes will also depend on consumer behavior.

“The number of people going out to stores are going to be severely impacted, so even if you’re allowed to be open, it doesn’t mean you’re going to be fully staffed,” Bailey said.

Transportation services have seen relatively few local impacts, Bailey said, and that’s unlikely to change. River, rail and truck traffic are all moving normally, and the Port of Vancouver is still operating. The only transportation sector that’s taking a major hit right now is airlines, he said. While no airlines have operations here, it’s likely that some employees based at Portland International Airport live here.

2. Education and health services – 27,900 jobs

The bulk of this sector is health care jobs, most of which are considered essential in the midst of a viral epidemic. There are exceptions, however.

“We did see a spike in (unemployment) claims related to home health care,” Bailey said — likely due to the fact that some home health care agencies have cut back services, and more workers are at home and able to take care of family members.

This sector also includes private school jobs and independent education services such as dance studios and martial arts classes — all of which are going to take a huge hit under the new restrictions. There’s already been a visible spike in unemployment claims from those workers, Bailey said.

3. Government – 27,300 jobs

The public-sector category covers everyone with a federal, state or local government job, including everyone working for the public K-12 education system.

This category is mostly safe, Bailey said, because even though schools and most government offices are shuttered, workers in this sector have switched to work-from-home models, and most essential municipal services will continue.

“Government is mostly good to go, mostly virtual,” he said.

4. Professional and business services – 20,300 jobs

The professional services sector is something of a mixed bag, according to Bailey. The sector includes several services that are considered essential, such as janitorial staff, rental car companies, security services, veterinary hospitals and waste management.

It also includes some businesses such as law firms, where employees will likely be required to stay home — although some white-collar office workers may find it relatively easy to transition to remote work.

5. Leisure and hospitality – 16,000 jobs

“Not good, just across the board” — that’s Bailey’s succinct assessment.

The vast majority of the jobs in this sector are accommodation and food service jobs, meaning workers at hotels and restaurants. All restaurant dining rooms have been shuttered since Inslee’s March 15 order, and the stay-at-home decree will take a huge bite out of the hotel industry.

The order allows restaurants to continue delivery and takeout services, but it’s a tough ticket. For example, Vancouver-based fast-food chain Burgerville announced on Monday that it would furlough about 68 percent of its workforce even though most of its restaurants remain open for drive-thru service.

According to estimates from the American Hotel & Lodging Association, the Washington hotel industry had already lost approximately 18,500 hotel-related jobs by March 20.

6. Construction, mining and logging – 15,700 jobs

Most construction job sites in Clark County were still operating at the start of last week, but that’s poised to change quickly.

Inslee’s initial order outlined several kinds of construction work that would be considered essential, which industry groups initially took as a signal that most construction would be exempted from the shutdown. But the governor issued a memo on Wednesday evening clarifying that residential and commercial construction projects are not considered essential unless they fit into certain specific categories, such as emergency repairs.

Most other projects will need to come to a halt, likely resulting in significant job losses both statewide and in Clark County.

7. Manufacturing – 14,000 jobs

Clark County’s manufacturing sector is divided into subcategories such as wood and paper products, food products, plastic products, machinery and electronics. Most of those categories were given a thumbs-up to continue as essential services, Bailey said, although there are a couple where it’s not clear if the essential designation applies to all products.

“A lot of manufacturing is OK under the governor’s order,” Bailey said. “It’s a matter of demand, and that’s going to be of greater or lesser concern for different industries.”

This sector also includes home and building repair services like heating and cooling systems and plumbing, Bailey said, which are generally considered essential.

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8. Financial services – 9,500 jobs

The financial services category includes banks, insurance and real estate. Banks are only minimally affected, Bailey said, and insurance firms will likely be able to work remotely.

The real estate sector is more vulnerable; local homebuilders have said that things are going well so far. But they expect a downturn in home sales due to quarantine efforts.

“If you look at (unemployment) claims by industry, with King County being the leading edge, there was a spike in claims filed in the real estate sector,” Bailey said.

9. Other services – 6,200 jobs

As the name implies, this sector is something of a miscellaneous category. It includes personal services like tanning, hair salons and auto repair, Bailey said, as well as labor unions, some nonprofits and business groups like the Greater Vancouver Chamber of Commerce.

The eclectic makeup of the category means the coronavirus impacts will be a bit of a patchwork, Bailey said. Auto mechanics, for example, are a protected industry, but hair salons are not. It mostly comes down to the nature of each service.

“If your lawn mower needs sharpening, I think you’re out of luck,” Bailey said.

10. Information – 2,900 jobs

The information services category is mostly untouched, Bailey said, with one major exception: Movie theaters. Businesses at every stage of the film production pipeline are classified as information services, and the coronavirus restrictions have taken a major toll, shuttering movie theaters both nationally and in Clark County.

Most of the other businesses in the information category, such as telecommunications, are considered essential — and the telecom industry could end up seeing a boost, Bailey said, powered by a spike in demand for work-from-home solutions.

Columbian business reporter