The effects of COVID-19 on our local economy are significant and run much deeper than traditional indicators might suggest.
It could be tempting to assume the economic world is righting itself when one views current unemployment figures, for example. Recent data from Iowa Workforce Development show unemployment in Dubuque County at 3.5%, well below the national jobless rate of 6.7% and just slightly above the December 2019 rate of 3.1%. Some might jump to conclude that the greater Dubuque area workforce is almost back to “normal.”
But other figures paint a much grimmer picture.
Some 55,500 Dubuque County residents were employed in December 2019. One year later, in December 2020, that figure had fallen by 5,000, or about 9%.
What happened to those 5,000 workers is another untold story of the pandemic.
Economic development officials believe the decline has much to do with the personal challenges that many people faced in the past year.
For example, as parents attempt to adapt to new schedules for children’s education, the difficulties have mounted. When a family with two working parents and young children have to figure out what to do on the days the children aren’t in school in person, something has to give. In some cases, one parent left the workforce to fill the child care void.
Other aspects of the pandemic provide other clues as to why workers might withdraw, such as health concerns. Nearly everyone knows someone who was sick this year, many of whom were seriously ill. Hundreds of area families suffered the loss of a loved one. Mental health issues, exacerbated by isolation and loss of routine, have soared. There’s been a spike in alcohol and drug abuse as well. All those things have changed the look of everyday life, and families are still reeling.
As Gov. Kim Reynolds pushes for every school to offer a 100% in-person option, there’s been pushback that it is too soon to bring students back full time. But for some parents, it might be too late to return to their former habit. People have fallen into new routines, and some workers might be lost to Iowa’s workforce indefinitely.
The decline in employment wasn’t unique to Dubuque County. Clayton, Delaware, Jackson and Jones counties in Iowa also boasted unemployment rates in December that were below the national average and comparable to the jobless rates reported one year prior. And all of those counties saw a significant drop in the number of individuals employed.
Meanwhile, Dubuque County and the surrounding area still suffers from the same problem it faced before the pandemic: A shortage of skilled labor. AccessDubuqueJobs.com currently shows about 1,600 jobs available in the region. And major employers continue to deal with the same challenge they have had for years — filling open positions.
At the same time, the state has eliminated key areas that had in the past helped pair up workers and jobs. Replacing those resources will be critical in rebuilding the post-pandemic economy.
Governor Reynolds said she was thinking of the needs of Iowa families when she called for a return to the option of 100% in-person school. As kids return to school full time, another area of need will be to bring their parents back to the workforce to strengthen Iowa’s economy.