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How the year-long pandemic has impacted the Central Coast economy

Posted at 9:23 AM, Mar 19, 2021

A year into the pandemic, we are beginning to understand the wide-ranging impacts of this challenging time.

Even before COVID-19 upended our world, local economists say the Central Coast's economy had weaknesses.

Melissa James is the president and CEO of REACH, a non-profit that studies the economy across San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties.

"Fifty-three percent of our jobs prior to the pandemic were earning a median wage of $25,000 and two-thirds of our jobs on the Central Coast being less than $50,000 a year," James said.

James says the majority of the local workforce was in low-way jobs and struggling to get by on the Central Coast.

"So then you layer in a pandemic and the kind of sudden and severe job losses and what we know now is that those job losses occurred primarily in those low-income jobs," she said.

Specifically, jobs were significantly cut in retail, restaurants and customer service.

According to the California Employment Development Department, unemployment in San Luis Obispo nearly doubled over the course of the pandemic. In 2020, unemployment was at 3.5% and increased to 6.7%. In Santa Barbara County, joblessness jumped from 3.1% in 2020 to 7.7% in 2021.

Yet as 2020 weathered on, James says there were signs of hope.

"Our high wage jobs, so those jobs that are $60,000 and above, throughout the course of 2020, they actually grew by 3.5%," James said.

She projects job growth mostly in higher-wage industries like healthcare, technology, real estate and management.

Jeff Buckingham is president of local telecommunications company Digital West. During a time that has demanded reliance on the internet, his business has done well. However, he still needs to fill positions.

"We had thought that during a time like this, it might be easier to hire people and we actually found that it was harder," Buckingham said.

He thinks finding new employees has been difficult because many people are not yet comfortable being inside, in an office. Buckingham hopes those concerns will diminish with vaccinations.

He also sees the evolution to part-time and full-time remote work as a silver lining of the pandemic.

"Remote work will be able to fit in with in-person work and I think we'll have a lot more flexibility for all workers as a result of the pandemic," Buckingham said.

He says the work-from-home model will make it possible for more people to afford living costs and meet personal needs.

"All these lessons we've learned about how to work remotely, how to be resourceful, as we open back up, we can apply those to the normal way of doing business," Buckingham said.

James says we need to shift our mindset about what "normal" looks like as we move into economic recovery.

"A focus will be building back stronger and better than it was before," James said. "It won't be a return to what it was before. It will be a transition into something new."

Research by REACH shows the local industries that did best during the pandemic are those involved with home improvement and construction as people tried to better their environment while stuck at home.