WKYT Investigates | Pandemic job losses

14 January 2021 - Garrett Wymer (WKYT)

LEXINGTON, Ky. (WKYT) - The economy is beginning to bounce back as we approach one year since the start of the pandemic in Kentucky. But some industries have a long road ahead of them.

Many in the hospitality industry say they have just been trying to hang on.

“If you had to use a word,” said Pam Avery, general manager of Embassy Suites Lexington Green and president of the Bluegrass Hospitality Association, “it would be survival.”

Restaurants and bars have dealt with see-sawing closures and restrictions, while hotels have tried to weather a steep drop in customers with travel - especially business travel - slowing down, if not completely stopped at times.

“This has been easily the most grueling, emotionally trying time that I’ve ever experienced,” Avery said. “We’ve never seen anything that happened so quickly, and so devastatingly, and with no end in sight.”

Kentucky as a whole lost about 326,000 jobs, experts say, just in the first couple of months of the pandemic. The industries with the most employment loss from March to April 2020 were:

  • Leisure and hospitality (73,100 jobs shed in Kentucky)
  • Manufacturing
  • Professional and business services
  • Education and health services
  • Retail trade

The state’s unemployment rate peaked in April at 16.6%. But economists say about two-thirds of the initial jobs lost have been recovered.

“Many of those of course came back very quickly as businesses reopened,” said Dr. Michael Clark, a University of Kentucky economics professor and director of the Center for Business and Economic Research. “The recovery though tends to be slowing down as we might expect.”

Economists say the state has about 108,000 fewer jobs now than in February, before the start of the pandemic.

Statistics for November - the latest statewide numbers released - show hospitality and leisure jobs down 6.3% compared to the same time last year. The highest percentages of jobs lost in that 12-month period are:

  • Mining and logging: 21.3% decrease
  • Information: 16.5% decrease
  • Professional and business services: 11% decrease
  • Government: 6.7% decrease

Beginning in June, women starting comprising the majority of insured unemployment claims in Kentucky for the first time in more than two decades, according to a state report on Kentucky’s labor force.

The Kentucky Center for Statistics attributes that reality to a few factors:

  • The industries in which many women work. National estimates show female workers make up more than half of the hospitality and leisure workforce.
  • Seasonal employment.
  • Childcare. Many school systems have stayed virtual. That can keep any parent, regardless of sex, from going back to work; but experts say childcare is the most common reason non-retired women cite for not working.

As things get more back to normal in Kentucky, economists expect jobs lost because of the pandemic - especially in service sectors - to continue to build back up over the next year or two. It could depend largely on consumer spending levels, Dr. Clark said.

“It may take some time for some of those businesses, particularly the small independent ones, to come back,” he said. “So it’s going to take some time for workers in that sector to feel a little more comfortable. It’s really hard to say exactly how long that’s going to take, but it will happen.”

But not soon enough for many workers. Even as federal data shows other industries added jobs last month, the hospitality industry across the country cut half a million jobs.

“Some of the best people I know, I’ve had to have hard conversations with. It’s heartbreaking,” Avery said of how hard it is to lay off or let go of workers. “And equally as difficult is go to the few people still here and say, ‘You’re going to have to work a lot harder for less money than you were before this occurred. And I’m really sorry.’”

And there is some concern that industries like theirs may never fully get back to the way they were before, thanks to changing consumer habits and business practices.

Still, though, Avery is optimistic.

“Be thankful. Be hopeful. Do the right thing. And let’s travel when the sun comes up,” she said. “If we can do all of that, we’ll recover. And we’ll be better and stronger than we were before. It’s just going to take a little time.”

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