Worst off by far are Knightsen at 19.9 percent unemployment and Bethel Island at 19 percent, according to the August figures from the California Employment Development Department. Both rural communities have worsened more than the rest of East County, increasing by about 3½ percentage points since January compared to an increase of about 2 percentage points in most other areas.
Linda Weekes, chairwoman of the Knightsen Town Council, said she’s not aware of her community having a significantly high unemployment problem. She suspects it might be due in part to the seasonal nature of farming. “Being agricultural and coming to the end of the year as far as produce, picking and working in the fields has now subsided,” she said.
Knightsen resident John Gonzales agreed that out-of-work farm workers probably account for the high unemployment rate in his community. He also speculated that the statistics might be skewed because in a small population of 700 to 800, a small increase in unemployment can significantly bump up the numbers.
In East County cities, Oakley is the winner with an unemployment rate just over 8 percent. That’s nearly 2 points better than Brentwood’s 10 percent and 4½ points better than Antioch’s nearly 13 percent rate. Oakley Chamber of Commerce President Steve Nosanchuk, whose photography business is located in Brentwood, doesn’t find much solace in Oakley’s standing, however.
“I think everybody is hit hard equally,” he said. “I don’t think people in Oakley are more or less employable than Antioch or Brentwood. I don’t think people in Knightsen or Bethel Island are less employable than Antioch or Oakley. I think everybody is hurting. I just talked to a daycare school today – she’s down 65 percent. That’s nuts. How do you possibly support yourself on a drop in your income of 65 percent?
“I haven’t heard anybody step forward and say they are thriving. I think people are looking to break even or accept a small downturn. But for the most part, people in Oakley are affected as much as in any other city. We (at the chamber) are trying to do things for the members, bringing in speakers that are relevant on how to weather these times. Unfortunately, we haven’t found anybody with the magic pill.”
Brentwood’s unemployment rate has steadily risen from 8 percent in January to double digits in August, despite the opening of the Streets of Brentwood shopping center a year ago.
“I think everybody is feeling it – every little retailer, every large retailer,” said Harry York, CEO of the Brentwood Chamber of Commerce. “Everybody is feeling that there’s less people out there spending money. People are in the turtle mode, where they pull their head in and are not spending on anything or spending very tightly.
“Everybody (with a business) is just trying to adjust. Everybody is trying to put their best foot out, trying to create their best picture to be competitive to meet the tighter market. You try to keep as many employees on as you can by adjusting hours and that kind of thing. I think it’s a unique time.”
York is optimistic, however, that federal stimulus funding, only a fraction of which has yet been dispensed, will help spur economic growth. In addition, he said he has seen fewer foreclosed homes for sale in Brentwood than when he moved to the city a year and a half ago. And he believes the city is well positioned when the turnaround finally arrives. “Brentwood’s becoming the retail center of East County,” he said. “Streets has done that – it’s still a ways to go, but the numbers certain show that.”
Antioch’s unemployment rate has been in double digits all year, increasing 2.5 percentage points from January’s 10.2 percent.
“As we know, it’s been extremely challenging for everybody,” said Devi Lanphere, president and CEO of the Antioch Chamber of Commerce. “Some people think (the economy) is going up; I think it takes a lot longer to see that on the ground and Main Street. We are still seeing a lot of repercussions. I know that almost everyone I have talked to has cut hours in some way or form. If it was a three-person shop, it might (now) be a two-person shop.”
The Antioch chamber itself is now closed every Friday, a cost-cutting measure taken in order to avoid laying off a staff member, said Lanphere.
The one area in East County hurting the least by the rise in unemployment is Discovery Bay/Byron, although their combined rate of just under 7 percent is up from about 5½ percent at the beginning of the year. But, like Nosanchuk, Chris Steele, the president of the Discovery Bay Chamber of Commerce, takes no comfort in the lower rate, which he attributes to the community’s large number of younger, better-educated residents with access to businesses in the Pleasanton-Livermore corridor and Tracy.
“I would say all of our (Discovery Bay) businesses are having to be more creative and put in four times as much effort to get half the result,” said Steele. “I see across the board everywhere in East County the significant majority of the businesses are challenged right now and trying to make ends meet.”
Steele, a commercial real estate broker, added, “Seventy percent of my clients are in distress. They are negotiating rents or asking for additional time to make payments on things. It’s challenging for all businesses right now.”
If there’s any consolation for most East County residents, the unemployment rate is even higher statewide, 12.1 percent (but 9.8 percent nationwide). Contra Costa County (11.2 percent unemployment) and Alameda County (11.7) combined lost 3,700 jobs between July and August.
The big job losers in the two counties in the past year are in trade, transportation and utilities (10,800 jobs lost) followed by construction (9,400 jobs), professional business services (7,000) and leisure and hospitality (5,300). The one bright spot has been manufacturing, which gained 300 jobs in the past year, largely in non-durable goods.