California Sees Record Unemployment — But Bay Area is Spared Worst

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A small business in San Francisco's Mission District. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The unemployment rate rose to 16.1% in California in April, the highest rate in state history. But the Bay Area has some of the lowest unemployment rates in the state, according to data from the California Employment Development Department.

Marin County currently has the lowest unemployment rate of any county in the state at 11.1% with San Francisco, San Mateo, and Santa Clara close behind.

“We probably have more people in the Bay Area who can work from home so they were able to keep their jobs,” Sylvia Allegretto of the Institute for Research on Labor & Employment at the University of California, Berkeley said.


Nevertheless, there are stark differences county-to-county, even within the Bay Area. Napa County currently has the highest unemployment rate in the Bay Area, at 15.9%, just below the state average. Solano and Sonoma Counties are close behind, with about 15% unemployment each.

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The difference in unemployment rates have a lot to do with what kind of work people in a given county do. “That's definitely going to play a role,” Allegretto said. And it can make it hard to parse the numbers.

Take San Francisco: The county is home to a lot of tech workers, many of whom have been able to work from home without disruption. But a huge share of the labor force works in restaurants and bars, which have been among the hardest hit by the pandemic. The relatively low unemployment rate of 12.6% may be misleading.

Workers in the leisure and hospitality industry, which includes restaurants and bars, account for the single largest group of people to file for unemployment insurance. 866,200 people lost their jobs in April or about 44% of the workforce in that sector. 280,400 education and health service workers filed claims, too, but that’s just a small portion of the more than 2.5 million workers in that sector.


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Meanwhile, many in the tech industry transitioned to working from home relatively easily. Tech saw just 40,500 people file for unemployment insurance in April 2020. Last month’s numbers show us the immediate hit of the pandemic.

Compared to March 2019, the tech industry has lost 8,900 jobs, and the financial sector just 16,500. The leisure and hospitality industry, though, faces nearly a million jobs lost in the same timeframe, most in the past month. The construction industry looks similar: 132,100 people lost their jobs in April, the vast majority of the 133,1000 jobs lost in the past year.

In many ways, the pandemic amplified well-known trends, Allegretto said. “You have big differences that existed before this happened.” And as counties start to open back up one by one, the numbers will only get more complicated.