Santa Barbara County unemployment rate trend

A graph provided by the California Employment Development Department shows the historical trend for Santa Barbara County's unemployment rates since September 2018 and illustrates the spike brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Santa Barbara County’s unemployment rate has fallen to about half of its April spike brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s still running nearly double what it normally would be at this time of year.

While most indicators show the economy is recovering, the “on-again, off-again” nature of the reopening process has slowed that effort and kept employment from returning to normal levels, economists have said.

That’s left many Californians — including county residents — in dire financial straits.

“Millions of Californians are struggling to pay for basic necessities like housing and food amid the worst recession in recent history,” the independent California Budget and Policy Center noted last week.

Workers who lost their jobs in the pandemic panic but have found work since then are still reeling from their earlier loss of income.

Economists say many of those workers depleted their savings accounts and are now struggling to pay rent, mortgages, utilities, car loans, prescription costs and other expenses.

Although the federal stimulus payments and massive unemployment benefit payouts have softened the blow, they haven't completely alleviated the pain.

A breakdown wasn’t available for the county, but the California Employment Development Department said, statewide, it has processed 15.2 million unemployment claims since March — four times the 3.8 million processed in 2010, the worst year of the Great Recession — and paid out $105 billion in unemployment benefits.

The local economic impact of COVID-19 might be illustrated best by Santa Barbara County’s unemployment rate.

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In recent years, the county’s unemployment rate has ranged between 3% and 4% for most of the year, meaning 6,500 to 8,500 members of the labor force are unemployed, according to figures from the California Employment Development Department.

But the EDD’s preliminary figures for September show the county’s unemployment rate about double that at 7.4%, meaning 15,600 people were out of work last month.

Naturally, events from state to global levels affect unemployment, but under normal circumstances, unemployment typically rises a little in December, peaks in January and then eases off in February and March to a more stable level by April.

In January 2019, unemployment hit 5.3% before sliding down to hover between 3% and 4%, except for a dip to 2.9% in May, according to preliminary figures from EDD.

This year, the rate rose to 4.7% in January and dropped to 4.6% in February, according to final numbers from the EDD.

But instead of continuing its usual downward slide, the unemployment rate rose to 5.7% in March as the pandemic reared its head, then skyrocketed to 13.9% in April, when 29,500 members of the county workforce were out of a job.

The rate gradually backed down to 10.3% by July, when 21,700 workers were unemployed.

With the state’s attempt to reopen the economy, the rate fell to 7.6% in August, when 16,000 county workers were out of a job, EDD figures show.