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Unemployment graphic
Data graphic by Dan Brendel
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Unemployment disparity worsens due to COVID, job recovery doubtful

REGION — North County cities facing the worst unemployment due to COVID-19 must grapple with how to get people working again — potentially in entirely different job sectors, since the jobs lost may not return soon, if ever.

Northern and inland cities — Oceanside tops the list — are experiencing markedly higher joblessness than coastal cities farther south, according to the most recent figures from the state government’s Employment Development Department. Hotels, tourism, restaurants and retail are among the hardest-hit industries.

“If [those jobs] don’t come back, how do we help these people? Do we retrain them? … That’s going to be the real question,” said Ray Major, chief economist for the San Diego Association of Governments (SANDAG), a regional agency, in a June 5 interview.

Major said he doesn’t expect tourism-related jobs to rebound within the next 18 to 24 months — long past this summer’s expiration of the federal boost to unemployment insurance.

“There are going to be a lot of people … who are either going to be on the unemployment roll for two years, because they don’t know how to do anything else; or some government agency [or private entity] is going to somehow have to retrain these people so that they have a skill set that could be used elsewhere within the economy,” he said.

Major cited Legoland in Carlsbad and Nordstrom at the Westfield North County mall in Escondido as examples.

Legoland won’t reopen at full capacity in the near future. Nordstrom is closing permanently. Of those businesses’ former employees, not all will find a new job in theme parks and retail.

Many will need to acquire new skills in order to compete in other sectors.

Data graphic by Dan Brendel

On the other hand, Bret Schanzenbach, Carlsbad Chamber of Commerce president and CEO, said laid-off employees may not jump at returning to work, even if their old jobs return.

“Many unemployed workers are getting paid better now [on government unemployment] than they were when they were fully employed,” he said in a May 30 email. “We have heard from some employers already about how this has become an issue with trying to get their staff back. … Hopefully, we don’t see too many people get overly comfortable in the short term and lose sight that they could lose their job entirely if they don’t come back when the employers need them.”

Less affordable housing near the coast largely explains the disparity in joblessness between North County cities. Unemployment is measured where the worker lives, not where the job is located.

So, while companies in wealthier coastal cities have lost business, lost jobs show up disproportionately in less expensive cities, that lower-wage workers live and commute from.

“[Our members] don’t live in Encinitas, Carlsbad, Del Mar, Solana Beach. There’s no way they can afford to,” said Bridgette Browning, president of Unite Here Local 30, a hotel, foodservice and gaming workers’ union, in a June 7 interview. “You see higher concentrations [of workers living] in Oceanside, Vista, San Marcos, Escondido.”

Oceanside’s relatively cheaper housing owes in part to its generally older construction, said Major pp. For example, about one-third of Carlsbad’s housing was built in 2000 or later, compared to about one-seventh in Oceanside, according to the American Community Survey.

“We’re very in support of concentrating mixed-use development around transit lines … giving our members access to nice places to live that they can afford,” Browning said. “They just get pushed farther and farther away from their job centers.”

Additionally, Oceanside intends to help residents train for high demand, higher-wage jobs.

“Before COVID, … our manufacturers and other employers couldn’t hire people fast enough, and couldn’t find good, skilled people,” said Michelle Geller, the city of Oceanside’s Economic Development Manager, in a June 5 interview.

Earlier this year, the Oceanside City Council approved the Hire Local Pilot Program, a partnership with Mira Costa College. The pilot, once launched, would pay an Oceanside resident’s tuition and fees for programs that train, for instance, machinists, welders or biomedical equipment technicians.

Geller said the local government also wants to help Oceanside’s “biotech cluster” — including firms like Genentech, Gilead Sciences and Sparsha Pharma — expand their businesses.

Though biotech growth wouldn’t necessarily affect local employment or housing. According to Major, these firms would hire the best-qualified candidates from anywhere, who might then commute from elsewhere in the region, not necessarily from Oceanside.