North Bay pandemic recovery a mixed bag, research says

How is the North Bay’s economy faring now that we’re 15 months into the pandemic?

Researchers from the Bay Area Council Economic Institute addressed several of the indicators during the North Bay Leadership Council’s 2021 State of the North Bay Conference, held June 10 via video conference.

“The impacts of COVID-19 on the Bay Area, North Bay and the nation’s economy were pretty severe and swift, so we’re still working to come out of those,” said Patrick Kallerman, institute research director. “We have vastly unequal employment, a changing work landscape, labor shortages and worker displacement, among other things.”

Although not all jobs can be carried out remotely, the popularity of jobs that can be done outside of the office remains strong. But there are pros and cons to that scenario.

Positive outcomes could include higher worker morale, ease of child care issues and more family time, as well as fewer single-occupancy vehicles on the highways, which down the road would help with greenhouse gas emissions and climate change.

One of the more significant downsides of not going to the office, however, would be the impact on the “dollars that support our infrastructure investments in a regional transit network,” such as SMART, Kallerman said. And that would have a domino effect, with fewer workers supporting downtown businesses for lunches or booking conference centers for events.

On the wages front, Kallerman said the number of middle- and high-wage jobs are almost 10% higher than before the pandemic. But low-wage earners have yet to see the number of jobs return to pre-pandemic levels. In fact, they’re off by nearly 40%, he said.

Overall, however, the North Bay is beating both the state and the region in percentage of jobs recovered. As of April, the North Bay had recaptured 49% of jobs, compared with 48% in California overall and 40.9% in the Bay Area.

Greer Cowan, research analyst at the economic institute, presented data that show more people are leaving the North Bay for other parts of the state and country. The pandemic has exacerbated departures that had already been intensifying over the last several years because of wildfires, she said.

The institute’s data show that going back to 2019, households that left the area had an annual income of less than $100,000. The top relocation destinations have been Texas, Arizona, Washington, Nevada and Oregon.

As of 2020, Marin, Sonoma and Napa counties collectively lost more than 8,000 people as a result of domestic migration, Cowan said.

“And looking ahead, the North Bay population is expected to age in the coming decades, which makes these challenges, in terms of labor force, even more acute,” Cowan said. “So it's important to factor in this projected demographic shift in planning for the future of the North Bay workforce.”

The pandemic also has taken a toll on another segment of workers.

“Women and parents in general had a hard time maintaining their status in the workforce, while also taking on the additional home care needs that resulted from the pandemic-fueled changes to the child care system and elder care system,” Cowan said. “Over the last year-plus of the pandemic, in almost every month with a few exceptions, more women dropped out of the labor force than men.”

In most cases, they were low-wage earning mothers who brought in less than their male counterparts. Depending on the job, the differential ranged between 64 cents and 87 cents on the dollar, she said.

“But despite all these barriers and inequities, there’s a proven economic benefit of having women in the workforce,” Cowan said. “Economists often talk about the female labor force participation as the most significant change in the labor force over the past century or so.”

One brighter result coming out of the pandemic has been the impact of pandemic relief funds, Kallerman said.

“Consumer spending is back, way back,” he said. “I think that we did learn our lessons during the financial crisis, that if you act swiftly and inject money into the economy quickly, you can circumvent a sort of complete structural collapse that would take you years and years to come out of.”

The relief money also helped a number of small businesses to survive, he said.

“The delinquency rate for small business loans is still actually very low, so that tells us that a lot of them hung in there,” Kallerman said.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.

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