The pandemic-induced economic recession reverberated through cities and municipalities across the country, prompting unemployment levels in Tompkins County to rise from 3.5 percent to 10.1 percent between March and April — the largest reported single-month increase in the county since at least 1990.
The Sun sat down with Natalie Branosky, director of the Tompkins County Workforce Development Board, and Tompkins County Legislators Martha Robertson ’75 (D-13th District) and Anna Kelles (D-2nd District) to reflect on the latest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on Tompkins County’s unemployment trends.
In September, the national unemployment rate declined to 7.9 percent as the economy sparked back to life in many parts of the country. With thousands of businesses reopening, the number of previously furloughed employees brought back to work totaled a dramatic 1.5 million.
In Tompkins County, the unemployment rate declined to 4.3 percent during the same period. But the county still has 2,900 fewer private-sector jobs than this time last year, when the county’s unemployment stood at 3.9 percent.
While employment levels recovered much more quickly in Tompkins County than in other parts of New York — New York City, for instance, still has a 13 percent unemployment rate — Kelles and Branosky noted that the county isn’t fully out of the woods yet, receiving about 150 to 200 new unemployment insurance claims per week.
According to Robertson, the primary reason that claims continue to remain relatively high is because many even employed residents still don’t earn enough to meet their basic needs. Unemployment insurance also covers workers who have had their hours or wages substantially cut, in addition to those who have been terminated outright.
Even so, the failure of Congress to expand the $600 a week unemployment supplement when it expired at the end of July means that insurance is only an incomplete stopgap. In New York, weekly unemployment benefits are capped at $504, an amount that is intended to approximate only half of one’s prior wages while employed.
“Unemployment insurance is only a partial replacement for lost wages; if the worker doesn’t make a living wage to begin with, unemployment isn’t nearly enough,” Robertson said.
In total, Branosky estimated that nearly 10,000 Tompkins County residents have made initial unemployment claims. However, a lack of federal support has hampered the county’s efforts to address the rising unemployment claims.
Job loss is concentrated in specific sectors, with higher education, hospitality and tourism, food services and health care the hardest hit industries, according to Branosky.
In a previous interview with The Sun, Prof. Ian Greer M.S. ’03 Ph.D. ’05, industrial and labor relations, explained how Tompkins County— unlike almost any other county in New York — is uniquely dependent on colleges. According to 2010 Census data, nearly 30 percent of the county is composed of college students.
As a result, the absence of many students from the local economy has had an outsized impact on unemployment levels in Tompkins County. While Cornell University announced a return to campus in a hybrid format, Ithaca College elected to hold an entirely remote semester. Many Cornell students also opted not to return to campus.
“The students left, and [they] just amount to a much bigger share of economic activity in our county,” Greer said. “There’s nothing comparable elsewhere in New York State — a single sector that suddenly shuts down. It’s not just people on campus who lose their jobs, but it’s everything that surrounds the university economy.”
Education going virtual has had adverse economic effects outside of higher education. While Ithaca public schools have largely reopened, Ithaca High School and Cayuga Heights Elementary School were forced to temporarily close last week following positive coronavirus cases among students. When schools or daycare facilities close, parents — usually mothers — often have to leave their jobs in order to care for their children.
“Many women [in Tompkins County] have taken themselves out of the labor market since the pandemic because of child care challenges,” Robertson said. “Since women still do more of the caretaking than fathers, when school went remote it was an incredible challenge to manage a job as well as be available for children.”
To address child care, Roberston, along with the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency, established a program to help child care providers reopen safely during the pandemic. The $100,000 fund will provide up to $10,000 in grants to fund protective wear, sanitation supplies and building air quality improvements.
In order for Tompkins County to continue on its path to economic recovery, Robertson stressed the need for a new COVID-19 stimulus package that provides financial assistance for state and local governments that have lost a significant amount of taxpayer revenue. Due to declining economic activity, the City of Ithaca, for example, reported that it would likely face a $4 million deficit.
While a Congressional stalemate suggests that new funding is not likely to come soon, such a package could help Tompkins County maintain critical services such as mental health, support for people experiencing homelessness and child care.
A new round of loans from the Paycheck Protection Program “could also help our residents directly decrease unemployment by helping businesses maintain their payrolls,” Robertson added. The forgivable credit lines, which temporarily covered the payroll expenses of small businesses, were widely seen as key in staving off a wave of bankruptcies and permanent closures.
Overall, Robertson said that, while some jobs have come back, Tompkins County is still experiencing harmful levels of unemployment.
“Thousands of residents have burned through all their savings; many businesses will have lost everything and closed,” Robertson said.
“The longer the pandemic lasts, the longer we will feel the recession effects of this pandemic and the higher the risk and reality for job loss and business loss,” Kelles added.