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More economic hits expected as 1 in 4 in Buffalo Niagara is unemployed

David Robinson

In just seven weeks, Buffalo Niagara has gone from having its best job market in modern times to its worst – by far.

With another 12,500 people filing for unemployment last week, roughly one of every four workers in Erie and Niagara counties now are without jobs.

A Buffalo News analysis of jobless claims and employment data puts the local unemployment rate at more than 24%. That's about five times higher than the 5% jobless rate in February, before the coronavirus lockdown started to devastate the economy to a degree not seen since the Great Depression.

Since March 15, more than 107,000 jobs across the Buffalo Niagara region have either been put on hold or disappeared altogether, according to state Labor Department data.

That's also understating the severity of the decline, since it doesn't count the untold number of workers who weren't able to file claims with the state's swamped unemployment filing system before April 25.

And it's getting worse.

A month ago, the hope was that the coronavirus would be quickly contained and that the businesses that had been shut down would be allowed to open back up after only a brief timeout.

If that happened, economists said the downturn and the recovery could take the shape of the letter V, with a steep drop, followed by an equally steep rebound. That was the best-case scenario that would allow the economy to get back to normal fairly quickly, with less long-term disruption.

But as the lockdown drags on, with May 15 being the earliest restrictions could be lifted and the likelihood increasing for an even longer closing in Erie County, those hopes for a quick recovery are fading.

With a vaccine likely a year or more away and without herd immunity, social distancing and density restrictions could be in place well into next year.

A phased reopening, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo is pushing, would allow some companies to reopen, but not others. So one business might be OK to reopen, but some of its key suppliers might not, making it hard for the restarted company to operate at anything close to full speed.

It now looks like the downturn will take a harsher shape, more like a U, with a steep downturn, followed by a period of stability at vastly reduced levels, and then a longer recovery as restrictions are slowly lifted.

That means the ripples sent out when the Covid-19 outbreak started hammering the local economy will continue to take a toll as one wave after another comes crashing in.

The first wave closed businesses and put small businesses that don't have oodles of cash on edge. The longer the lockdown lasts, the more small businesses won't be able to muster the strength to reopen when the all-clear is given.

That will have lasting effects, with what now seem like temporary job losses turning into permanent ones.

There will be other ripples, too, as Canisius College economist George Palumbo points out.

While the federal stimulus package is providing forgivable loans to many small businesses, there are plenty that are missing out, putting them in greater jeopardy. Extended unemployment benefits are helping workers replace lost income, especially with the supplemental $600 weekly benefit, but that is set to expire at the end of July.

With bars, restaurants and many stores closed, there isn't much to spend money on. That sends damaging ripples out to other companies that supply those shuttered businesses, putting jobs there in jeopardy that grows with every day that the lockdown drags on.

Those workers may still have jobs, Palumbo notes, but they may be starting to worry about how long they will be able to keep them. Some companies already are delaying pay raises or imposing pay cuts on workers who remain on the job.

As more workers worry about missing paychecks, or their paychecks actually shrink, they will hunker down, too. Maybe that prompts them to stop ordering takeout from the local restaurants that already are struggling to stay afloat. Maybe the lost income puts them in a position where they decide to scrap plans to buy a new car later this year or replace their kitchen countertops when the lockdown eases.

For an economy where consumer spending accounts for about 70% of all economic activity, a 25% unemployment rate and rising uncertainty about future layoffs is a dangerous thing.

Another ripple will hit the local housing market, now largely shut down because of the economic restrictions imposed by Cuomo. It had been a pillar of strength heading into the downturn, with strong sales that had pushed home prices to record highs.

But with more than 125,000 people out of work, who will buy houses when the state deems it safe to allow open houses? If the buyers aren't there, a market that had seen quality homes selling fast and for close to asking price could be in line for a reset, with lower prices and slowing sales.

That cuts into the overall wealth of every homeowner, since a home is typically the biggest single purchase most people make. And those homeowners already have seen significant declines in the value of their 401(k) and other retirement accounts as the stock market has dropped.

So the ripples keep coming. One after another. Each one eroding more of what, just two months ago, had been a solid Buffalo Niagara economy.

And there's no end in sight.

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