From manufacturing to gig economy, pandemic hits hard in multiple sectors

Kristin Dietzel

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to job losses across multiple economic sectors, with some industries bearing the brunt in the spring and others feeling the sting later in the year.

Numbers compiled by Greater Dubuque Development Corp. show the largest number of initial unemployment claims in Dubuque County came from those in the manufacturing sector. Since March 21, 3,169 claims have been filed by manufacturing workers.

The health care sector had the second-highest number of claims in Dubuque County, with 2,743. The “accommodation and food service” and retail trade sectors showed claims of 2,047 and 1,798, respectively.

Kristin Dietzel, vice president of workforce solutions for Greater Dubuque Development Corp., said the pandemic has hit various economic sectors in waves.

“We saw that health care, retail and restaurants were really high in unemployment claims during the beginning (of the pandemic) due to closures,” she said. “Once those industries have been able to reopen, manufacturing has been affected the most.”

Restaurants and some retail businesses contended with mandated closures in the spring. Hospitals remained open but were forced to stop elective surgeries.

A breakdown of county jobless data since July 1 shows that these industries have rebounded in recent months.

There have been only 291 initial claims in retail and 320 in accommodation and food service since July 1. Manufacturing, on the other hand, accounted for 860 additional claims.

More than 2,400 new unemployment claims since March 21 in Dubuque County have come from unspecified industries, which Dietzel said includes self-employed and those who work in the “gig economy.” The latter category includes those who work for ride share companies like Uber or food delivery entities like EatStreet.

“In the past, those workers have never been eligible for unemployment benefits,” Dietzel explained. “They are eligible now because of the CARES Act.”

The CARES Act is the federal stimulus bill that was passed by U.S. lawmakers this spring. Dietzel said benefits for gig economy workers will continue through the end of December.

Ron Brisbois, executive director of Grant County Economic Development Corp., said some industries in southwest Wisconsin are recovering more quickly than others.

New layoffs at hotels and restaurants may have slowed, but they are also the businesses that have been slowest to hire back workers.

“Any business that relies on visitors and tourism, those are the ones that are struggling to come back,” Brisbois said.

Manufacturers and food processors in the region have faced their own challenges but proven to be resilient during the pandemic.

Cheese makers in the region, for instance, were hit hard when restaurants were forced to close. However, they were able to turn things around by tailoring their products to clients outside the restaurant industry.

Brisbois said Grant County businesses are aware that the winter could bring challenges, however.

“There are going to be fluctuations (in unemployment levels) across the board,” he said.

An analysis of weekly figures shows that unemployment claims have ebbed and flowed over the past seven months.

Initial claims in Dubuque County peaked at 2,718 in the week ending April 4, but have fallen sharply since.

Initial claims perked up slightly, to 212, in the week ending Nov. 7, ending a streak of 12 consecutive weeks in which that total was below 200.

Despite the recent increase in new claims, an ongoing decline in continuous claims shows that more people are re-entering the workforce. Continuous claims in Dubuque County fell to 1,247 in the week ending Nov. 7, the lowest total since March 21.

Dietzel noted that not all of the people re-entering the workforce right now are landing in an ideal situation.

Some individuals are earning less pay.

And many who had hoped their layoffs would be temporary learned they would be permanent, forcing them to take a position at a new company. In the process, these individuals are giving up tenure and experience.

“When you are new to a company, you can be more vulnerable to subsequent layoffs,” she explained. “It is kind of like starting over.”

Local programming is helping job-seekers find the right fit.

A partnership between GDDC and Northeast Iowa Community College, known as Opportunity Dubuque, recently announced the rollout of two skills training programs.

The courses will prepare participants for assembly operator and warehouse technician positions, both of which are in-demand positions at this time.