Between September 2019 and September 2020, the number of employed people in San Juan County has dropped by 23 percent. This is the highest decrease in the state.
“This represents a significant decline, and earlier in the pandemic downturn the job losses were even higher. Life is painfully hard for our businesses and workers — we currently have the worst job losses in the state, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families is up 143 percent year over year, hotel/motel tax is down 44 percent, and taxable retail sales are down 22 percent,” San Juan County Economic Development Council Executive Director Victoria Compton said. “These figures are markedly worse than previous downturns including the Great Recession. With the worst job losses in the state and the fact that most other counties’ pandemic-related economic impacts are nowhere near as devastating, we’re reminded that our reliance on just a couple of swing-vulnerable industries tends to wallop us in downturns that other Washington counties weather better — in some cases, much better —and it takes our economy longer to recover.”
The total employment loss across the state is 5 percent from the previous year, with two counties — Ferry and Benton — experiencing a gain since September 2019. Also statewide, the largest drop in employment was in the leisure and hospitality industry, which lost a quarter of its jobs between January and September 2020. Retail trade experienced a 1 percent increase, as well as finance, insurance and real estate.
“Frankly, downturns are often the best time to start new businesses — if you’re in the right industry, there’s nowhere to go but up,” Compton said. “It’s also a great time for existing businesses to be nimble and ready to learn new things. Those businesses that have pivoted to online and curb sales, or partnerships with other businesses, are doing a lot better than those that have not.”
While the EDC doesn’t have exact numbers on how many island businesses have permanently closed amid the pandemic, and likely won’t until April, but Compton said she’s heard, anecdotally, of a few on each island who have shuttered their doors. New businesses are also starting up, however, she noted.
“It’s been incredibly hard for our businesses. Everyone here at the EDC — and at the state and federal level — is doing what they can to mitigate the tremendous impacts of pandemic closures,” Compton said. “My heart goes out to all our workers and business owners.”
For more information bout the EDC, visit sanjuansedc.org.
The future of the island economy
According to Compton, over the last three decades, the economy of the islands has evolved from that of resource extraction — logging and fishing — to being heavily reliant on tourism and second home construction.
“While tourism has been an important factor in that transitional economy, our complete reliance on it and second home construction have made our economy extremely vulnerable to both economic downturns and job losses,” Compton said. “Looking forward, if we want to mitigate our outsized downturns and provide living-wage jobs for islanders, we absolutely must diversify and grow new industries.”
New island industries include expanding and connecting businesses in jobs in knowledge work; sustainable building trades; agriculture; and natural conservation, Compton said. This would lessen the “wild downturns and seasonal cyclicality” the islands have experienced annually for decades, she added.
“We could also take a hard look at economic leakage and work to encourage locals to shop locally, and to discourage non-local companies and individuals from buying properties and businesses here purely for profit,” Compton said. “Economic leakage funnels money away from our local economy, drives local prices for goods and services higher, and puts the burden of conservation and infrastructure on locals.”
Compton explained that she believes the community should focus on targeted marketing on ecotourists instead of mass marketing to all visitors.
“By inviting eco-visitors who typically spend more money and stay longer, we can loosen our reliance on an ever-growing volume of visitors,” Compton said. “Since our economy is primarily driven by the fact that the islands are a beautiful place to visit and live, we need to remember that the islands are a pristine and fragile economic asset that will not benefit from ever-expanding visitation and development. We need better — not more.”
These types of conversations have been going on for decades in the islands, Compton noted. But this time it feels different, she continued.
“It feels like more islanders are willing to change and grow into a new economy, and it feels like the technological advances of just the past few years will enable us to do so,” Compton said. “And I believe that we can do this with all my heart: we’re islanders and we get through things, together.”
San Juan Islander Minnie Kynch works for Washington’s Northwest Workforce Development Council, a business-led board that works with the community to ensure a skilled and competitive workforce, according to its website.
“In this county, there are jobs available in the trade, transportation and utilities as well as manufacturing and construction sectors,” Kynch said. “For those who are unemployed, maybe it is time to seek training in a new field.”
For more information about Northwest Workforce Council and how it can help you find a new career, call Kynch at 360-378-4662 or email email@example.com. You can also visit nwboard.org.
Federal assistance for the unemployed
Early in the pandemic, the federal government provided Americans economic assistance via the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act in late March. Introduced as part of the CARES Act were the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program and the Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. The PUA provides unemployment assistance to those who typically don’t qualify, such as domestic workers, freelance workers, contractors, and other workers in alternative work arrangements. The PEUC temporarily provides a 13-week extension of benefits for those whose regular unemployment benefits — which lasts for 26 weeks in most states, including Washington — expired but still struggle to find work amid the pandemic. Both are set to expire on Dec. 26.
“These programs are still as vital as ever as the country faces more than five times the number of COVID-19 cases as in the spring,” Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) said in a press release. “Currently more than twice the number of Americans are participating in these programs as in the regular state unemployment system. According to data from the Washington State Employment Security Department, 464,884 Washingtonians claimed unemployment benefits during the week of Nov. 15-21.”
Thirty-two U.S. Senators, including Cantwell, wrote to Senate leadership urging it to extend two “critical financial lifelines” for Americans.
“As the virus surges going into the winter months, the loss of benefits at this time is particularly cruel. A recent report from The Century Foundation suggests that nearly 12 million workers could lose coverage once these programs expire over the holiday. In other words, roughly 12 million American workers will lose benefits this season for a job they lost through no fault of their own,” the senators wrote to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY).
In the letter, the senators requested the PUA and PECU to be extended with additional weeks of eligibility for workers, noting that approximately 4.4 million workers across the country will run out of benefits by the end of the year, and millions more exhausting their benefits in 2021.
“What’s more, the loss of emergency benefits compounds the hardships many families are already facing in this economy. Since May, researchers have found that roughly 8 million Americans have slipped into poverty,” the senators continued. “… In other words, going into this holiday season, millions of additional American families are living below the poverty line, unable to provide sufficient food for their households and likely facing evictions from their home.”
Follow-up legislation, titled the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions Act, was originally approved by the House in May, and renewed in October, but has repeatedly stalled in the Senate.