7 Things You Should Know About Rochester’s Economic Recovery

By: Lee Koslow, Technical Assistance and Training Manager for RochesterWorks!



On March 7, 2020, Governor Cuomo issued an executive order declaring a disaster emergency in the State of New York. The economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic came quickly and forcefully. It has been an economic downturn like no other. Since June, I have been tracking the economic recovery in the Rochester area. Here are seven things that I have learned about where we've been and where we're headed.

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1.    The worst is behind us.

In April, the Finger Lakes Region's (the nine counties surrounding and including Monroe County) unemployment rate peaked at 14.9%. During that month, the number of people with jobs dropped below 500,000 for the first time on record (we have data going back to 1990). Employment levels have been on the rebound since May. Will we see another sharp drop in employment numbers?

That is highly unlikely. Remember that shutdowns artificially created this recession in response to COVID-19. Since March, we have learned a lot about how the novel coronavirus is transmitted and how to safely go about our daily business. Even if there is a second wave of infections, businesses should not see a general shut down the way they did earlier this year.

2.    The best is behind us too (at least for now).

When will we see employment return to its pre-recession level? A straight-line projection from May forward places a full job recovery in the spring of 2021. However, the economy never moves in a straight line. There are sectors of the local economy that may never fully recover, and businesses that may never reopen. A complete recovery could take a couple more years.

3.    Some industries—and some jobs—are doing reasonably well.

A couple of industries, including general merchandise stores (think, Walmart) and (non-public) educational services, have gained a few jobs in the Rochester metro area year-over-year. Hospitals have broken even. Construction and professional, scientific, and technical services (including lawyers, accountants, engineers, advertising firms, and other professional services) have nearly recovered, with losses of just a few hundred year-over-year.

4.    Some industries—and some jobs—will struggle to recover for a long time.

The two industries that have lost the most jobs are food services and drinking places (-13,100 jobs) and local government, including public education (-11,400 jobs). Restaurants and bars will continue to struggle until social distancing measures have ended, and people feel safe going out in public. Local government has experienced mounting budget pressures for years and has now suffered from a sharp increase in expenses, along with declines in revenues due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The local government sector’s recovery will likely lag far behind the general economic recovery.

5.    The economic downturn has been worse for some than for others.

The COVID-19 recession has disproportionately impacted lower-income workers, women, people of color, people with disabilities, and youth. Let's take a closer look at the industry sector with the most significant employment losses, food services, and drinking places.

Workers at restaurants and bars were paid low wages before the pandemic and were among the most likely to lose their jobs due to COVID-19. During the recovery, these jobs are high-risk, high-contact jobs. The top five occupations in the food services and drinking places industry account for 64.8% of industry employment.

  • Women are overrepresented in four of the top five occupations.
  • Black or African American workers are overrepresented in three of the top five occupations.
  • Hispanic or Latino workers are overrepresented in four of the top five occupations.
  • People with disabilities, who experienced earlier and more severe pandemic-related job losses than workers without disabilities, are overrepresented in the leisure and hospitality sector.
  • Younger workers are significantly overrepresented in food services and drinking places.

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6.    COVID-19 has accelerated changes in the way we live and work.

People are shopping online more than ever before. Amazon’s stock price is up 40% over its pre-pandemic peak. Students are learning online. People are even socializing online. These trends began long before COVID-19, but the pandemic has caused them to accelerate considerably.

In March, when all non-essential businesses shut down, companies asked their employees to work from home if possible. Telework is not a new concept. However, many companies that resisted it before the pandemic have discovered that working from home is a viable option.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics measures the percentage of workers who can work from home within each industry. During the shutdowns, industry sectors with a greater ability to work from home, such as professional and business services and financial activities, experienced smaller job losses. And, as you might expect, industry sectors with a lesser ability to work from home, such as construction, wholesale and retail trade, and leisure and hospitality, experienced more significant job losses.

Having the ability to work from home does not necessarily mean that 1) an employer extends that opportunity to the worker or 2) the worker takes advantage of the opportunity. The data suggest an opportunity to mitigate the effects of pandemic-related shutdowns by increasing the percentage of workers who benefit from available work-from-home options. That percentage is referred to as the takeup rate.

Takeup rates (from national data) among the Rochester metro's largest industries vary from a low of 12.7% to a high of 40.8%. There is room for improvement in every sector.

Pre-COVID Takeup Rate










*Employment data are for total nonfarm jobs.

7.    There is one crucial long-term trend that has not been changed by the pandemic.

Businesses have had and will continue to have difficulty finding skilled workers. Higher unemployment should mean fewer job openings, especially if mainly due to temporary layoffs or furloughs. That is the opposite of what has happened, and the increase in job openings at this time suggests that jobs are still challenging to fill. With a national unemployment rate of 10.2% in July, there were still 6.6 million open jobs on the last day of the month. Will there be more available workers in the Rochester area in the next ten years?

Baby Boomer Data

Unfortunately, no. As Baby Boomers continue to pass retirement age, we expect a 6% decrease in the Monroe County working-age population between 2020 and 2030. That means that 1) businesses will need to work with the available workforce to train them for good jobs, and 2) workers who are willing to learn new skills will have increased opportunities in the workforce. Investing in workers is the key to a better recovery and a healthy economy in the long term.


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