The leisure and hospitality industries were hit the hardest with employment losses during the pandemic, with jobs down 50.8% in January compared to January 2020. 

Overall, the number of unemployed people in Santa Barbara County increased 59% during the past year, according to the state Employment Develompent Department.  

At the end of January 2020, there were 10,200 unemployed people. At the end of January 2021, the number of unemployed people jumped to 16,200.

At one point, at the height of the pandemic, the county lost about 22,000 jobs.

The current unemployment rate is about 7.7% countywide, with North County at 10.6% and the South County at 5.9%.

“A significant number of hotel employees are still out of work,” said Tom Patton, owner of the Ramada Inn and chairman of the Visit Santa Barbara board.

“Particularly in the larger hotels with meeting and event space and food and beverage outlets. We have been working hard on both a state and local level to reopen meetings and events, at least on a small scale, to revive this essential part of the hotel industry and the many employees that fill these positions. But even in the limited service hotels we are operating with significantly fewer employees.”

According to Peter Rupert, a UCSB economics professor and director of the Economic Forecast Project, the accommodations industry had 5,900 people employed countywide in January 2020 and that was down to 2,900 in January 2021. 

Food services and dining employment is also dramatically down. In January 2020, there were 18,600 people employed. In January of 2021, the number had dropped to 11,800 countywide. 

Still, Rupert is optimistic.

“We are certainly not out of the woods in terms of employment-unemployment,” Rupert said. “Maybe the trees are a bit thinner and the slow opening of business along with vaccines will certainly help. People should realize that we have not really been in this position before, so that history is not much of a help.”

After the recession, it took about eight years for unemployment to reach pre-recession levels, he said, adding that employment is often slow to recover.  

“Contrast that with the pandemic, where we saw a spectacular rise and a very quick fall as well, so maybe some hope there in terms of speed of recovery,” Rupert said. 

At a recent Radius Group presentation, Mark Schniepp, director of the California Economic Forecast in Santa Barbara, said nationally there are 9.5 million people not working today who were working one year ago. In California, 1.8 million people are unemployed and 800,000 workers never came back to the workplace. 

Across California, about 1.3 million people in the leisure and hospitality industry lost their jobs in the past year. 

Schniepp said there were about 12,000 people employed at restaurants, bars, tasting rooms and other food services in Santa Barbara County this January, compared to about 18,000 jobs a year earlier. 

“The traumatized industry is leisure, recreation, accommodation, personal services, hospitality,” Schniepp said. 

He noted that the real estate market has been “red hot.” The median cost of a home in Santa Barbara is $1.28 million, up from about $1.1 million in 2020. 

“Real estate has really been a major savior to the economy in California and the nation,” Schniepp said. 

Schniepp, like other economic analysts, is hopeful about the year ahead. 

“We hope positive cases will diminish,” Schniepp said. “But we know the possibility of another surge is coming. The vaccine pace will increase and consumers will begin to feel a lot more confident.”

He said a big mystery is the summer months, and whether the tourism industry will return this year.

James Minton, vice president of Strategic Planning for Visit Santa Barbara said: “It is alarming that this was the highest unemployment of any sector reported by the Department of Labor.”

He noted that January is the most recent month of data available at this time, and that novel coronavirus-related restrictions loosened up more recently, allowing leisure travel and more businesses to reopen operations. 

“Although current employment is certainly improved from this exceptional low point, it is still deeply impaired as we work through the recovery in travel,” Minton said. 

— Noozhawk staff writer Joshua Molina can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk, @NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.