As unemployment claims soar, where are Virginia workers getting hit hardest?

By: - April 2, 2020 3:11 pm

The Omni Homestead resort is the largest employer in Bath County. (Photo by Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Bath County has so far been spared any confirmed cases of COVID-19, but its economy is already taking one of the biggest hits.

The Omni Homestead Resort is the sparsely populated county’s largest employer, and last month the luxury retreat closed its doors and laid off most of its workers. Bath now leads the state in new unemployment claims per capita, with nearly 8 percent of residents filing jobless claims over the last two weeks.

“Those are neighbors, our citizens and our friends,” says County Administrator Ashton Harrison. “We’re very concerned.”

Virginians filed 160,000 new jobless claims over the past two weeks – more than all of last year’s claims combined. But not all industries are being affected equally, which means the picture from city to city and county to county can vary dramatically.

So far the hospitality and food industry has taken the biggest hit, accounting for more than half of all claims last week, according to Megan Healy, Gov. Ralph Northam’s chief workforce adviser.

That’s left Bath, where the Homestead is the county’s second largest single taxpayer (a massive Dominion Energy energy storage facility is the first), in a particularly bad spot. Harrison said the local supervisors are already planning to meet to amend the current year’s budget. “We’re expecting some pretty drastic hits on the revenue side,” he said, which he’ll propose balancing with reserve funds and, possibly, a tax increase.

Manufacturing also accounts for an outsize portions of claims, according to Healy. Those job losses are reflected in a high rate of claims from localities like Covington, Hopewell and Danville, where the city’s largest employer, a Goodyear plant, shuttered last month.

On the other hand, Northern Virginia has fared comparatively well, with the number of jobless claims per resident hovering between 1 and 2 percent. Healy attributes that to the fact that the federal government is still open, as are many of the government contractors located in the area. “They’ve all gone to telework,” she said.

Likewise, Southwestern Virginia has seen lower claims than more urban localities in the Richmond and Hampton Roads area, though that could change as major coal mines begin to close.

Healy said people should expect things to get worse before they get better.

“This week’s number looks really high, but it might look low next week,” she said.

With that in mind, she said the state is taking steps to make sure weekly checks keep going out to workers, including potentially procuring additional office space to separate workers into two teams.

“In case people in one building get sick, we have a backup team,” she said.

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Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.