Food is the New Clothes: a Year in Pandemic Employment in Lane County

by Henry Fields

February 16, 2021

Next month marks a year since the beginning of COVID-19’s impact in the United States. March 2020 brought the first stay-at-home orders, the first employment declines, and the beginning of an unpleasant economic experiment that continues to this day.

Over that year, work has looked a lot different for all of us, but the impact you feel depends on which industry you’re in. While Lane County has lost a shocking number of jobs – we remain about 10% below payroll employment in December 2019 – the last year and the trajectory forward look a lot different for hotel workers than for white-collar workers.

Looking at jobs in specific subsectors tells a fascinating story about what’s changed in the past year. How we spend our time and money changed dramatically in 2020, and that shows up downstream in the employment data. Whether you’re looking for a new job yourself or interested in how the recession affects our community, understanding the impact that changing consumption has had is vital.

To look back at employment over the last year, I compared the most recent Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages (QCEW) data, which includes all employment covered by Unemployment Insurance from the third quarter of 2020, to the same time in 2019. I excluded sectors with confidential data, the public sector, and sectors with a change of fewer than 50 workers.
Let’s look at the bad news first. The fastest declining sectors relate primarily to the decimated leisure and hospitality industry. People can’t go see a performance, stay in hotels, go to a casino, or go out to eat like they could a year ago, and employment in the sectors containing those activities have all declined by more than 20% in the past year.

Another casualty of quarantine life is clothing retail stores. With less opportunity to wear clothes out and more people working from home, fewer are buying new clothes. Dressing rooms are also difficult to maintain and sanitize during this time, and the clothes buying that is done these days has moved online more than ever before.
Not every sector has been negatively impacted – some sectors have been relatively unaffected, and a lucky few have even grown steadily. Those fastest growing sectors also relate to changing consumption patterns.

If we can’t eat out in restaurants, it seems that we’ll grow it ourselves or make it at home. Businesses in the food supply chain have grown as a result, from crop production to wholesalers of nondurable goods (which includes food and medicine) to food and beverage stores.

Anecdotally, companies providing in-demand products to households with more time, money, and desire to try home baking or cooking have done especially well and continue to hire. Building material and garden supply stores are similarly well-positioned, as people use more time at home to work on renovations and gardening.

I don’t have a great explanation for expanded hiring at credit intermediation and related activities (primarily banks). It could be that banks need more customer-facing positions to manage mortgage refinancing because of lower interest rates, PPP loans from the federal government, or greater saving from stimulus checks.  

Through this data, it’s easier than ever to see how our spending affects the economy. If you’re in the market for a new job, food, farms and home improvement are a good place to start. For those who want to help struggling local businesses, pay special attention to those in clothing, hospitality, or travel. Like in previous recessions but even more so in the pandemic recession, not everyone is experiencing the same impact.

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