Local business experts say Monroe County jobs numbers took “big hit” from pandemic, but vaccinations could give economy a shot in the arm

At their regular meeting on Tuesday, Monroe County councilors got a briefing from local economic experts on their outlook for the coming year.

The presentation came from Carol Rogers, who’s co-director of the Indiana Business Research Center at IUPUI, and Jennifer Pearl, who’s president of the Bloomington Economic Development Corporation.

The current jobs growth and unemployment news is bad in Monroe County, as it is in the rest of the state.

Rogers told county councilors the local labor force numbers have slipped. The labor force figure of 69,205 in December 2020 is down 2.5 percent compared to December 2019, she said.

Out of that labor force of 69,205, in late 2020, 2,315 people were unemployed in Monroe County. That made for a 3.3-percent unemployment rate. It’s 25 percent higher than last year, Rogers said. “We’re in one of the highest unemployment scenarios that we’ve been in the county since the Great Recession,” Rogers said.

One statistic that Rogers said she’ll be tracking as a possible driver of economic recovery is the rate of COVID-19 vaccinations.

Rogers said, “As more and more people become vaccinated, as the spread [of COVID-19] is reduced and hopefully potentially eliminated, [we hope] we’ll see [weekly unemployment] claims get down to the hundreds instead of well over 1,000.”

“The ability for [Indiana University] to constrain the virus spreading among the student population is going to have an effect on that.” Rogers said.

Pearl framed her remarks in terms of a public health concept: the social determinants of health. Economic stability, neighborhood and physical environments, education, food, community and the healthcare system all influence health outcomes for individuals and communities, Pearl said. “These are factors that have all been strained by the pandemic,” she added.

Pearl reported some of the responses from a survey of 20 BEDC members, saying that different industries have seen different impacts from the pandemic. A couple of bankers responded to the BEDC, expressing optimism for 2021, Pearl reported. The bankers said that federal appointments and economic policy decisions will impact the banking industry.

Rogers contrasted the sectors of the economy that were hardest hit initially with those that are now seeing the impact. In the spring of 2020 at the start of the pandemic, Rogers said, it was hospitality services, restaurants, and bars, that were hardest hit, even though manufacturing, retail trade, and even health services already saw some unemployment claims.

More recently, Rogers said, the hospitality industry is still affected, but seeing the negative impact shrink. She added, “Sadly, some of it is shrinking, because some of those businesses have closed temporarily and in some cases they’ve closed permanently.”

Another area that continues to see a hit is construction, Rogers said.

Pearl reported that contracting companies have said they will be affected by decisions on major construction and renovation projects, both tied to public and private funding. She noted Indiana University’s capital plans will continue to impact the local construction economy, along with the plans of IU Health, the Regional Academic Health Center, and expansions by Cook Medical and Catalent.

Responding to a question from councilor Geoff McKim, Roger said there’s a variety of trades associated with construction. A heavy machinery operator might still have work, she said, pointing out that work on I-69 is still occurring. But most of the I-69 construction work is now in Morgan County, Rogers said, and those workers would follow it.

About the construction sector statewide, Rogers told McKim there’s been a hit on specialty trades—things that require a lot of carpentry, things like that.

Councilor Marty Hawk, who said she grew up in a construction family, asked if the poor construction numbers might be due to the seasonal winter slowdown. Hawk also asked if the negative impact had been on residential or commercial construction.

Rogers told Hawk that also in the spring and summer, not just in the winter, it was construction and manufacturing—along with accommodation and food services—that saw the hardest hit.

Construction jobless claims have started to shrink, Rogers said, but they’re still significant enough that it worries her. Rogers told Hawk she did not have data in hand that would allow her to comment on the impact on residential compared to commercial construction.

Rogers provided some geographic data for unemployment claims that showed the initial impact was significant across the county, with some exceptions inside Bloomington. Rogers chalked that up to the stability of Indiana University and the amount of remote working that was done.

More recently it’s the southwest part of Monroe County that continues to suffer a greater impact from unemployment. But as Rogers put it, “None of these areas in the county are not experiencing layoffs or job loss.”

Rogers concluded that in 2020 the Monroe County economy took “a big hit” in terms of job losses—there was no job growth on a net basis. At some point in 2021, Rogers said, “We’re going to make up for that.”

But for in the shorter term there’s going to be a hit to the economy because there’s less money circulating, Rogers said. “People who’ve lost jobs don’t have money to spend. Businesses who have lost customers don’t have money to spend in the local economy.”

The pain won’t necessarily be over in 2021, Rogers said. “We anticipate that that pain is going to continue this year, and even potentially into 2022.”

Rogers wrapped up with a caveat: “Although we anticipate a good bounce back by [2022], but as you can tell, like most economists will do, I’m hedging my bets a little bit.”

Chart from IBRC presentation to the Monroe County council on Feb. 9, 2021.

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