One Kentucky Town Has Almost Recovered From Its Job Losses During The Pandemic

Sep 4, 2020
Originally published on September 4, 2020 7:00 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

There's a new jobs report out from the Labor Department this morning. U.S. employers added 1.4 million jobs last month, and the unemployment rate fell to 8.4% - still high. And at this rate, it appears that the recovery from the coronavirus recession will be slow. But some communities have a head start. Owensboro, Ky., has already gotten back most of the jobs it lost this spring. NPR's Scott Horsley explains how.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Owensboro, which sits along the Ohio River in northwestern Kentucky, took a big hit this spring, just like the rest of the country. Its unemployment rate skyrocketed to nearly 15% in April, slightly higher than the national average. But within two months, Owensboro's jobless rate was back to normal - actually lower than it was before the pandemic, thanks to a combination of luck, hard work and community spirit. Owensboro was lucky to have big employers that make things we depend on during the pandemic, like Kimberly-Clark toilet paper, Ragu spaghetti sauce and Fireball Whisky.

MATT MAIMONE: In the state of Kentucky, the spirits business was designated as essential.

HORSLEY: Matt Maimone is chief operating officer at Sazerac, which owns the Glenmore Distillery in Owensboro. Bars and restaurants are not buying as much liquor these days, but the distillery's 400-plus employees are producing plenty of drinks for home consumption. They've also turned some of their grain alcohol into hand sanitizer.

MAIMONE: Not only have we continued to operate, but we're actually hiring.

HORSLEY: Ironically, one of the big casualties of the pandemic was Owensboro's hospital network, which lost two-thirds of its income during the spring when elective surgeries were shut down. Hospital President Greg Strahan made the decision not to furlough any of his 4,300 employees, though. It's not easy to recruit doctors and nurses to a small city in a largely rural part of the country. Strahan worried if you let people go, they might not come back.

GREG STRAHAN: We can't afford to furlough people. We can't afford to lay them off.

HORSLEY: Once surgeries resumed in May, Strahan's team was ready, and they quickly made up much of the lost revenue. Owensboro has not been spared by the coronavirus. The surrounding counties logged more than a thousand cases. But most big employers have found ways to keep operating safely. The United Food and Commercial Workers Union pushed a local ham company hard for more social distancing and protective equipment. Caitlin Blair, Local 227, says the union also wants the company to restore the 10% hazard pay that workers stopped getting at the end of May.

CAITLIN BLAIR: They go to work every single day so that we have food to put on the table for American families. And they deserve to be appreciated, supported, protected and paid.

HORSLEY: Owensboro is also home to a mortgage processing arm of U.S. Bank, one of the country's largest. Thanks to strong demand for housing and super-low interest rates, the mortgage business is humming. About three-quarters of the bank's employees are still working from home. That's a challenge for parents now that virtual school is starting up again. The Chamber of Commerce is trying to help. Chamber President Candace Brake says they're working to establish off-campus learning centers where kids can get school meals and working parents can get a break.

CANDACE BRAKE: If you're working full time, even if you're from home, you can't stop and be an instructional aide for your child and be an effective employee. You can, but it's going to be extremely challenging.

HORSLEY: Despite those challenges, Owensboro has come closer to a V-shaped recovery than just about any city in the country. But it's still not out of the woods. The city's ROMP Festival that usually draws 25,000 people to support the Bluegrass Museum had to be canceled in June. And the unemployment rate actually ticked up in July to 5.4%. But Brake says the community is doing its best to keep going.

BRAKE: I don't think any of us can predict what's going to happen other than the fact that we're going to have to stick together and get through it.

HORSLEY: Scott Horsley, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.