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Low-income workers, small businesses still digging out from pandemic

By John Seelmeyer
Published: Last Updated on

Even though the economy of Reno and Sparks continues to recover from the worst effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the recovery is very uneven.

Small business owners remain hard-hit. So do low-income workers.

On the other hand, upper-income families — especially professionals or business executives — are doing well.

Here’s what the numbers show as we reach the first anniversary of the pandemic’s crash into the local economy:

The unemployment rate in the Reno-Sparks area stood at 5.2% in December, up from 3% a year earlier. That’s substantially better than the statewide jobless rate of 9%, which is nearly triple the figure a year ago.

But some people in the Reno-Sparks area — restaurant and hotel workers, in particular — have been harder-hit than others.

At the end of 2020, about 6,600 fewer people were working in jobs in leisure and hospitality in the Reno area than at the start of the year, reports the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation.

Soaking up some of the slack was the addition of 800 jobs in manufacturing, the sector that’s the shining star of the region’s economy these days.

And business and professional services, a grab-bag category that includes everyone from dentists to marketing consultants, added 1,400 jobs in the past year. Many of those new jobs are well-paid.

Here’s another way of looking at the uneven job prospects: Opportunity Insights, a Harvard-based initiative that looks at the economy in nearly real time, says that Washoe County has lost about 30% of its lowest-paying jobs since the start of the pandemic.  (Those are jobs paying less than $27,000 a year.) At the same time, the county has lost about 3% of its middle-income jobs.  But high-paid jobs — those that pay $60,000 or more — have grown by 11% since early last year.

Opportunity Insights says, too, that people in Washoe County still are spending money, but they’re not spending it in small businesses.

The researchers say overall consumer spending in the county in mid-February was down only 0.7% from a year-earlier.

But revenues of small businesses across the region were down nearly 29%, and about 35% of the small businesses that were open before the pandemic haven’t reopened.

Makita’s new Reno facility, a $50 million investment, is a state-of-the-art facility offering expanded distribution, training and service capabilities. The facility opened in August 2020 to meet growing market demand. Image: Vance Fox

On the other hand, Internet shopping has grown dramatically.

The Nevada Department of Taxation says sales at what it calls “non-store retailers” were up 28% in Washoe County during December compared with the same month a year ago.

With the growth of online shopping — and the growth of Reno-area fulfillment centers to handle customer orders — air cargo traffic at Reno-Tahoe International Airport during December was 3.7% higher than a year ago.

Passenger seats, however, still were empty.

Reno-Tahoe International Airport says passenger flights were 53% full during December compared with 80% a year earlier. And that’s despite a sharp cutback in the number of flights serving the airport, a reduction of 37%.

In all, the airport says passenger traffic in December was running 60% below a year ago.

Hotel occupancy, too, remains in a funk — but the usual seasonal factors may be at play.

In February, the occupancy rate at hotels in Reno and Sparks was 45%, says the Reno-Sparks Visitors and Convention Authority. That’s not great, but it’s slightly better than the 43.3% occupancy in the same month a year ago, before the pandemic arrived.

And the gaming business is doing just fine.

The Nevada Gaming Commission says the gaming win in Washoe County during January was up nearly 5% a year ago.

Housing, too, is doing just fine — fine, at least, for folks selling homes and landlords renting apartments.

The median price of an existing home in the Reno-Sparks area in February stood at $390,000, an increase of 5% from last year, says the Reno-Sparks Association of Realtors.

The region’s average apartment rent of $1,424 at the end of last year, meanwhile, was $100 a month higher than it was at the start of the year, found an analysis by Johnson Perkins Griffin Real Estate Appraisers & Consultants.

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