July jobless spike cause for concern

BATAVIA — Unemployment numbers in the GLOW region continue to increase as the state and local economy continues to be hit by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Genesee County had 10.6 percent unemployment in July — up from 9.6 percent in June, according to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Labor.

The county boasted a record low 3.1 percent unemployment rate in June 2019.

In July, Livingston County’s unemployment rate increased to 10.4 percent compared to 9.4 percent in June. The rate had peaked in April, during the height of the state’s coronavirus outbreak, at 14 percent.

“We are still dealing with some of the economic impacts of this crisis,” Livingston County Administrator Ian Coyle said.

Orleans County has a higher rate at 12.8 percent for July — a 2-point jump from 10.8 percent in June. The rate had peaked at 15.9 percent in April.

Wyoming County had the area’s lowest unemployment rate at 10.1 percent in July, which was an increase from 9 percent in June.

Officials continue to discuss the impact of unemployment benefits and the weekly $600 bonus Congress awarded through the CARES Act when the coronavirus pandemic first arose. The enhancement ended in July.

Some business owners and largely Republican lawmakers argued the $600 bonus was so high, it served as a disincentive for employees to return to work.

Coyle agreed the enhancement affected the area’s employment rate.

“I think that enhanced federal portion was an impact to folks, meaning for some people who were on unemployment, it was [financially] meaningful to the point that they maybe remained on unemployment,” Coyle said. “It’s not a character assertion. It was meaningful and important for folks.

“I really want to see how things are in another 30 days or so.”

The North Country has the state’s lowest unemployment claims, while experiencing a 131 percent over-the-year percent change as of Aug. 29, according to the Labor Department.

The Mohawk Valley labor market region reported a 204 percent over-the-year percent change in claims, with a 222 percent increase in Central New York and the Capitol Region, and a 242 percent change in the Finger Lakes region as of Aug. 29.

Some business owners have had a difficult time getting employees to return to work, St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brooke Rouse said, adding many people did not take advantage of the unemployment bonus.

“Yes, from an employer’s perspective, they’ve had a hard time, but the reality is, a lot of people have been hard-hit by this and even with this additional money, they’re operating on a shoestring,” she said.

Rouse spoke to county residents who lost their jobs and used the enhancement to pay an unexpected new bill: Health insurance.

She recounted a story of a furloughed worker who continues to pay more than $1,000 a month for health insurance after the employee’s benefits ended a few months into the pandemic.

“There’s no black and white to this at all,” Rouse said. “People who had really good jobs and were supporting their families and their homes were just, overnight, out of work, and they also didn’t have health insurance.

“So though they were getting this bonus with unemployment benefits, their payments have increased in professional situations.”

The GLOW region’s economy heavily depend on essential agriculture and agribusinesses, which Coyle said has helped Livingston County.

“That sector of the economy didn’t stop,” he said, naming Kraft-Heinz and Barilla America Inc. “You saw a lot of ag continue and a lot of agribusiness continue. The staples of our output, you saw soy, beef and corn, sweetening products and packaged goods are essential. That will be helpful.”

The overall impact to the small-business employment sector hit the county hardest, Coyle said.

“That’s something we will be working on — working with our small businesses to help them rebound as best we can,” he added.

The county’s development corporation offers opportunities for technical assistance grants and a revolving loan program for small businesses.

“We provide those small efforts and hope they have enough of an impact of importance,” Coyle said. “Small businesses are a big backbone of the economic development perspective in Livingston County.”

Economic activity picked up in the region as college students and faculty returned to SUNY Geneseo last month.

Livingston County Workforce Development will hold an outdoor job fair from 4:30 to 6 p.m. Sept. 22 at Livingston County Al Lorenz Park, Mount Morris. The rain date is Sept. 29.

For resources and more information, visit livingstoncounty.us/285/Workforce-Development

The job fair will be held at the park so applicants can easily maintain social distancing.

“We’re trying to be innovating and continue to make ourselves available and that people are hiring,” Coyle said.

The county leader encouraged residents to search the job listings in local newspapers and the Penny Saver, which has several job listings.

“They’re all over the map from management to sales from part-time to full-time to minimum wage, agriculture to non-agriculture,” Coyle said.

With different and changing opportunities, Coyle said he has hope the local economy will bounce back with help from federal grants for small businesses, or technical assistance awards for start-up campaigns, spurring business activity.

“I think our economy will rebound,” he said. “We will provide all the tools that we possibly can, and then some and then new ones. We’re chasing leads all the time.

“A misconception out there is that the economy has completely and utterly stalled, and that is not the case,” Coyle continued, adding the county continues to receive and respond to project proposals.

“People might have that erroneous assumption that not a lot of people are going to make an investment in the current economy regardless of the state because of the fiscal calamity we find ourselves in, but I know that’s not true,” he said.

Employees with medical concerns are slowly returning to the workplace amid the risk for potential COVID-19 exposure.

As school resumes this week after Monday’s Labor Day holiday, employees struggle to balance finding childcare as districts balance in-person and remote learning.

Most New York businesses have reopened, but travel continues to be compromised.

Businesses continue to work to procure sufficient Personal Protective Equipment, such as gloves, gowns, face shields and masks, which takes additional time and resources.

“A lot of businesses have figured out what they could do to be successful — it depends,” Rouse said. “Some were unaffected.

The county development agency allows North Country businesses to defer interest-only payments and offers special working capital loan programs, which have helped establishments stay afloat during the pandemic.

“They’re low-interest loans to help businesses with cash flow to get through the immediate crisis,” said Jefferson County Economic Development Deputy CEO David Zembiec, adding the entity worked with the local chamber of commerce and other economic agencies.

Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence workforce development officials are working to share information in the regional business community and bridge a skills gap, including vacancies in technical computer knowledge or coding, Zembiec said.

“We’re examining options across the region and what we can do in terms of workforce and supporting child care,” he said. “In terms of ‘training up,’ with the number of people who are currently unemployed way more than usual, there is an opportunity here to train those folks.

“We’re all trying to cooperate — we’re looking at everything,” he added. “We don’t have all the answers yet ... We don’t know the full impact of this yet, but we’re still thinking.”

Johnson Newspapers 7.1