A year gripped by the Coronavirus pandemic is coming to an end with unemployment rates in Orange County dropping to around 6.4% last month.

Last year around this time that rate was around 2.6% — less than half that number, according to the state’s Labor Market Information Division.

Stay at home orders put in place this year to combat the spread of the virus caused businesses to close retail doors and adapt. Unemployment rates in the U.S. reached the highest they’ve been since the Great Depression but the rates are going down.

At its height in May, unemployment rates in Orange County hovered close to 15% equating to over 200,000 residents without jobs for three months straight. 

And though those rates have been on the decline since then, over 100,000 remain unemployed in Orange County and still feeling the stress of wondering where their next paycheck will come from. 

“It’s not as bad as the Great Depression and worse then the Great Recession but we think we know the cause and with vaccines there appears that will be light at the end of the tunnel,” said UC Irvine economist Ami Glazer in a phone interview.

The unemployment rate in the county is reflective of the national rate, which is also at 6.4% while the state’s unemployment rate is at around 8%.

27-year-old Fullerton Resident Alex Khalifa, was laid off in 2019 and the pandemic has impacted his ability to find a job.

“I have a degree from a good college, I have a lot of experience. I’ve gotten a fair amount of interest online,” he told the Voice of OC. “Nothing has translated to any concrete job offer or even temporary work and I know that’s maybe partly a product of the pandemic, but I just didn’t expect to be unemployed for this long.”

Khalifa said that he applied for unemployment right away but it timed out before it was reinstated due to the pandemic.

For months now, many have been waiting and depending on the government – at every level – for support. 

Federal lawmakers in March approved $2 trillion in Coronavirus Relief funds, which partly went to American citizens through stimulus checks. But such aid excluded undocumented immigrants many who live in Santa Ana, Anaheim, and other cities in the north and central parts of the county.

Meanwhile a second round of stimulus checks for certain citizens included in a $900 billion Coronavirus Relief Package is expected to be sent out. The House of Representatives voted Monday to increase the checks from $600 to $2,000 after President Donald Trump called for larger payments.

The measure to increase the checks is expected to be voted on by the Senate.

The shutdowns that occurred in March left Orange County Social Services overwhelmed with calls and applications for financial relief. 

In April, nearly $14 million in food stamps were distributed to 75,000 households with food assistance being the number one request for the social services agency.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors bolstered Orange County’s two food banks with $6 million in Coronavirus relief funding this year. Food banks and pantries have been working week after to week all year to ensure residents don’t go hungry.

County supervisors also poured in millions of dollars to directly help small businesses as well and in May the county received a $900,000 grant from the state employment development department. The grant was used to provide economic relief to over 1,500 OC workers impacted by the pandemic

At a news conference that same month, Gov. Gavin Newsom said 4.6 million Californians have applied for unemployment insurance since the pandemic started taking hold in March. During the Great Recession, 2.2 million Californians were unemployed at its height in 2010. 

“[Numbers] haven’t been felt, like this, since the Great Depression. These are not normal numbers,” Newsom said back in May. “These unemployment numbers are jaw dropping.” 

The highest unemployment rate felt in Orange County following the 2008 recession was around 10% in 2010 but those rates dropped, settling between 2-4% since 2017 before skyrocketing up by 10% between March and April of this year.

Newsom and the state’s unemployment department came under fire for a backlog of hundreds thousands of claims that were caused by a host of problems including technological and logistical issues as well as a shortage of staff.

The issues were made apparent by a report published in September by a strike team directed by Newsom to make recommendations to reform the department.

On Dec. 23, there were over 430,000 of backlogged initial claims taking more than three weeks to be issued first payment or disqualified from a payment. 

Khalifa said there was a time when the unemployment office took weeks to process his claim. He added he was using EBT cards for food but became ineligible when his unemployment claim kicked in.

Local labor leaders called on the state to bolster protections for workers who have been laid off with a state Assembly bill that would require employers up and down California to notify employees they laid off of any new, open jobs they’re qualified for. 

California’s Chamber of Commerce argued the bill was a job killer because it imposes complex mandates on businesses.

In the end, Newsom vetoed the bill.

In addition to government aid, local communities also have rallied around themselves, offering direct aid to neighbors in need all year long. 

Mutual aid funds like In’Lakesh Relief Fund in Santa Ana are offering people community-sourced financial aid to go to things like housing, legal, and health care costs.

Food banks, food pantries and houses of worship have been utilizing drive through distributions to hand out food all over the county many multiple times a week all year long. 

For 15 weeks straight, Second Harvest Food Bank held a drive through distribution at the Honda center.

Long lines of cars formed outside their first distribution – spilling into the streets – as people waited hours for food. Second Harvest then adapted to bring down the wait times.

Glazer said that some of the government’s response to slow the spread has been without much thought on it’s impact to the economy. 

“The lockdowns have been done with a sledgehammer, rather than thinking through and finding what will work causing less damage to employment and income. 

Glazer said whether the drop in unemployment rates will continue depends overwhelmingly on the infection rate and the vaccine. 

“People are afraid to go out and until the infection declines that would continue,” Glazer said. 

“The best evidence is China, where infections appear to have disappeared and they’re close to where they were before the epidemic started so if we close to eliminate infections the way China has we should also be doing well.”

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC Reporting Fellow. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.

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