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Unemployment soars to 15.2% in Sonoma County

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Sonoma County’s unemployment rate shot to 15.2% in April, likely the highest since nearly 80 years ago, driven by the devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic on business and industry, the state reported Friday.

One in five workers who live in the county — 47,800 people — lost their jobs in April, according to the state Employment Development Department. Nearly half of them left the labor force entirely and stopped looking for work, a factor that prevented the jobless rate from soaring even higher

By March 18 when the county’s top public health official ordered all but essential local businesses to close, area economic activity came to a standstill and companies jettisoned most of their workers. The April jobless report for the first time showed the knockout punch the local and state public health emergency orders to slow the spread of the coronavirus delivered to the county labor market .

Hotels, restaurants and bars shed 14,400 jobs. The ag sector, primarily wineries, cut 5,000 jobs. Retailers lost 4,200 jobs. Health care and social assistance organizations laid off 4,800 workers. Manufacturers cut 4,000 jobs.

The number of unemployed residents in April nearly quadrupled, reaching a staggering 35,900 people, up from 9,500 the previous month.

The county’s jobless rate likely matches or exceeds the unemployment level when the U.S. headed into World War II in 1941, based on comparisons to national data. Certainly, it the highest local mark in state records that go back to 1983.

Robert Eyler, a Sonoma State University economist who tracks the local labor market, said the most telling statistic was the loss of about 14,000 jobs — mostly in restaurants and bars — over the past year.

“We knew they were going to take a beating,” he said. Going forward, the question remains how many of those positions will be lost due to permanent bar and restaurant closures, Eyler said.

Michael Hunter, 31, of Cotati, was let go from his job as a line cook at Ram’s Gate Winery in Sonoma in March. For now, his monthly unemployment benefits and savings cover most of his expenses. But with the $600 per week in federal unemployment benefits set to expire for workers at the end of July, he’s counting on the winery to hire him back once it can reopen.

“Right now, I’m worried my place of employment is going to go under,” Hunter said. “I dread the day I look on their Instagram or get an email that says they’re closing for good.”

Around the North Bay region, Mendocino County had a 14.8% jobless rate in April, Lake County was at 15.2% and Napa County was at 15.9%. Wealthy Marin County’s rate was 11.1%, the lowest in the state.

Statewide, unemployment rose to 15.5% in April, eclipsing the previous record of 12.3% at the height of the Great Recession in 2010, the state agency said.

California’s loss of 2.3 million jobs in April is the largest on record dating back to 1976 and was deemed a “direct result” of the COVID-19 pandemic. The total vastly exceeds the 1.3 million jobs lost during the 2½-year recession from July 2007 to February 2010, the agency said.

The nation’s unemployment rate in April was 14.7%, the highest since 1948 when the federal government started tracking the statistic. Some 20.5 million jobs were lost nationwide in April.

Friday’s report delivered the tectonic shock anticipated in the wake of the March report, which showed unemployment in the county had risen to 3.6%, its highest level in nearly three years, indicating Sonoma County moved from nearly full employment to recession-level unemployment in just a month.

But the March report only reflected 2,000 residents companies let go in during the second week of that month — before the county’s public health emergency stay-home order took effect March 18. The order, which has since been amended and eased, brought most local business and industry to an abrupt halt.

The unprecedented directive issued by the county’s Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase caused closures of countless of most area businesses, including countless retailers, all restaurants for in-person dining and the county’s 300 wine tasting rooms.

Looking ahead, Eyler predicted the county’s jobless rate will peak in the “high teens” in May, with nationwide unemployment hitting a high water mark at the same time.

The second half of the year should bring improvement, he said, depending on how much of the economy is reopened. Job gains in construction and manufacturing would boost consumer income, but workers will need more opportunities for local spending, Eyler said.

Staff Writer Ethan Varian contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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