Whole industries fell off a cliff in Central New York when Gov. Andrew Cuomo shut down non-essential businesses to control the spread of the coronavirus.
Restaurants and bars shut down. Shopping malls closed. Casinos went dark. People stopped building houses. More than 15,000 Central New Yorkers filed initial unemployment claims in the first week of the shutdown. A year earlier, that number was 543.
A Syracuse.com | The Post-Standard analysis of 15 years of working here shows the extent of the damage done to the job market and hints at what is next.
Which industries were hit the hardest and fastest? What jobs rebounded? Which jobs are just starting to fall off?
The analysis shows:
- The number of jobs in the Syracuse metro area plummeted from a 15-year high at the end of 2019 to a 15-year low by April.
- Jobs lost in retail, restaurants, bars, hotels and other tourism-related industries have not rebounded, leaving tens of thousands of low-wage workers without jobs. Many still have no idea when they will be able to come back.
- Manufacturing and construction jobs recovered quickly, but those jobs make up a surprisingly small chunk of the workforce.
- Government, education and health care jobs will be next to suffer. When people don’t spend money in restaurants, bars and stores, there is no sales tax revenue going into city, county and state governments to pay police, firefighters, snowplow drivers and teachers. With the loss of manufacturing in CNY, these have been the most reliable jobs with decent paychecks and public pensions.
The Syracuse metro area had hit a 15-year high at the end of 2019, with 326,000 people at work. By the end of April, the number of jobs had plunged to 262,700.
Jobs in stores, restaurants and hotels crashed first
More than half of the 25,000 people who work in accommodation and food service industries lost their jobs from March to April.
About 9,000 retail workers were sent home.
Another 3,000 people who work in other service industries like laundry and repairs lost their jobs.
That means about 37,000 people who make some of the lowest wages in Central New York were immediately out of work.
As workers in higher-paid industries returned to their jobs, thousands of low-wage workers have waited their turn.
Destiny USA shut down March 19 and started to come back to life in July. But the biggest mall in New York is not yet itself.
Lord & Taylor, the oldest department store chain in America, has filed for bankruptcy protection and announced it would close all 38 of its stores, including the one in Destiny USA.
J.C. Penney will close its Destiny USA store Sept. 21, dropping 91 employees.
Outside of shopping malls, other retailers were able to open earlier with limited hours and occupancy. Some stores opened for curbside pickup, but struggled to compete with the increase in online shopping.
The retail industry sat out spring, summer and back-to-school. Already, stores are looking at Christmas. Will people feel safe enough to shop?
“I have no idea,” said Ted Potrikus, president and CEO of the Retail Council of New York State.
“A lot of the holiday shopping excitement comes from being part of a crowd,” he said. “It’s like going to a concert. You go because you want to be part of the action and you want to be around people. Now you don’t. Not this year.”
Hardware stores and grocers remained open through the pandemic as essential services. Big box stores like Lowe’s and Home Depot are hiring.
“There are jobs to be had in retail and there will be jobs to be had in retail in the near future and the longer-term future,” Potrikus said.
Hotels remained open as essential businesses. But customers immediately started canceling rooms and events. It started with the St. Patrick’s Day parade and continued through Syracuse University graduation and, most recently, the New York State Fair.
Tony Mangano co-owns six hotels in the Syracuse area, including the Homewood Suites and the Super 8 in Liverpool, The Tru by Hilton and the Hampton Inn near the Interstate 81 and State Thruway intersection.
In mid-March, he furloughed about 60 of his 200 employees and reduced hours for the rest. Some have come back, at least to work two days a week and still qualify for unemployment benefits.
This summer, the hotels have been only half full of guests instead of the typical 90% for the busy season. The hotel is missing business conventions and travelers to youth sports tournaments, concerts and the State Fair.
But fewer guests do not necessarily translate into a lighter workload, he said. Everyone is working harder for less pay.
“Normally, we clean the lobby twice a day,” he said. “Now, we’re doing it six or eight times. It’s a lot of extra effort.”
Mangano reads all of the industry reports and the guesses at recovery are all over the place.
“Some industry people are saying it might be 2023 before we get back to 2019 business,” he said.
The state’s limit of 50 people at any gathering decimated the wedding and banquet business through the summer and likely into next year. Heavy lobbying and successful lawsuits from brides and grooms have not convinced Cuomo to budge.
The industry is pushing the governor to offer some metric — an infection rate by a possible target date — that would allow the number of people who can gather to increase to 100, said Mark Dorr, president of the New York State Hospitality and Tourism Association.
“After September, a lot of members will have to close their doors,” Dorr said.
Ann Marie Taliercio is president of the Central New York Labor Federation and Unite Here Local 150, which represents workers in the hotel, gaming, food service, airport and laundry industries.
Taliercio, who is on the control room calls with Cuomo’s staff, said big events are shut down for good reason. But she doesn’t know what to tell workers who want to know when they can return. Many of the union’s members work in hotels, banquet halls and concessions at places like the OnCenter and the baseball stadium.
“Let me tell you, the only ones working in food service are the school districts, the hospitals and the nursing homes,” she said.
Once the tourism economy is allowed to reopen, it will continue to suffer a lack of confidence from customers.
“We haven’t come to the wall yet, where we’re going to feel the real brunt,” she said.
Some employers, like Mangano, have used federal help to stay in business.
Workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic have also had extra government help. For the first four months, workers received an extra $600 a week on top of regular unemployment benefits. After weeks of negotiations in Washington and among states, New Yorkers will continue to qualify for an extra $300.
Construction, manufacturing built back fast
As home building came to a halt this spring, many construction firms found a way to keep big, essential jobs moving. The Carrier Dome construction is ahead of schedule.
The construction industry dropped from 11,500 jobs in March to 8,400 jobs in April, but it is one of the few industries that came out on top by the end of June with 12,800 jobs. That is, in part, because of the seasonal nature of working outdoors.
Manufacturers limited hours in March and April as production fell to its lowest level on record.
Still, the number of manufacturing jobs bounced back from a low of 22,800 in April to 23,800 in June.
“When you look at manufacturing and construction, it’s not perfect, but there’s a bit more control over person-to-person interactions with controlled workspaces, staggering times of work,” said Russell Weaver, an economic geographer with the Cornell School of Industrial and Labor Relations. “They were able to remain relatively stable.”
After decades of movement toward the service industry, those sturdy manufacturing and construction jobs make up only 10% of the economy in the greater Syracuse area, records show.
Public sector jobs are starting to slide
There are tens of thousands more jobs in government, schools and social services. Government and schools employ more than 75,000 people in the Syracuse metro area. That includes federal, state and local government jobs and every school district.
Another 40,000 people work in health care and social services.
Some of these workers, who were essential in a pandemic, are likely to be caught up in the next wave of job losses.
Hospitals have started to bring back workers who were furloughed in March, but they continue to hemorrhage money. Upstate at one point was losing about $1 million a day.
One of the first budget cuts announced in Onondaga County was in the amount of money government would give to nonprofits that provide social services. The county cut $4.5 million to charities, including Vera House and Catholic Charities.
The downturn in spending in the county is starting to translate into government jobs.
Sales taxes cover a large chunk of the cost of government services in the county and the city of Syracuse.
Already, the county has received about $26.5 million less in sales tax than expected in the 2020 budget, said Onondaga County Executive Ryan McMahon.
The county has left 300 positions unfilled and offered buyouts to 160 employees. McMahon plans to lay off as many as 250 employees if sales tax revenue continues to decline and there is no relief from Washington.
Syracuse Mayor Ben Walsh has announced a plan that cuts $18.1 million from the city’s budget by freezing hiring and mandating furloughs more than 400 employees, including himself and his top staff. It isn’t sitting well with the unions.
The number of people filing initial unemployment claims has dropped since the deluge in March. But it has not stopped.
Just last week, another 1,700 Central New Yorkers filed new claims with the state’s unemployment office. That’s four times more than in the same week last year.
The coronavirus has killed 204 people in Onondaga County. No one has died in the past week. More than 3,600 people have been infected since March. But the infection rate (the percentage of tests that come back positive) is regularly below 1%. The number of Syracuse University students who tested positive in pooled saliva tests is 6 of 18,000 tests, or 0.03%.
There were 11 people in the hospital Wednesday, compared to 75 at the beginning of June, according to the county’s reporting website.
McMahon is pushing the state to lift restrictions on more industries, especially in hospitality and tourism.
He said businesses have earned the right to reopen. They are willing to abide by any testing requirements the state might impose.
“If not now, when?” McMahon said.
Graphics by Mike Dupras.
Contact Michelle Breidenbach | [email protected] | 315-470-3186.