For Georgia’s economy, path for the next few months is precarious

Vaccine spurs hope, but pandemic continues to weigh

For both CharterUp and the economy at large, the next few months will be a little like steering a damaged vehicle down a dark and winding road toward a bright light in the distance.

Success of the company — which connects people who want to charter buses to the companies that lease them — rides with the economy’s ongoing struggle to recover amidst a deadly, deepening pandemic, even as the hope of effective vaccines hover on the horizon.

Along with a return to normality.

For months, there has been precious little need for chartered buses for business and athletic events. But it will come, said Luis Carranza, chief financial officer of Atlanta-based CharterUP.

For the the economy and for Atlanta businesses, the next several months are uncertain. CharterUP, which connects people who want to charter buses with the companies that lease them, is anxious to see things return to normal.
For the the economy and for Atlanta businesses, the next several months are uncertain. CharterUP, which connects people who want to charter buses with the companies that lease them, is anxious to see things return to normal.

Credit: Contributed, CharterUP

Credit: Contributed, CharterUP

“We expect a bounce-back in demand,” he said. “In the medium term, our services are going to be needed. People are going to want to travel. Schools are going to want to play sports again.”

Unfortunately, a lot of bad things can happen in the short term.

While the economy has been improving, more than one in four small businesses in Georgia that were open a year ago have closed, according to the most recent data from the Harvard University Opportunity Tracker.

The hardest hit sector has been accommodation and food service.

Metro Atlanta restaurants have averaged 44% fewer customers during the past 30 days than during the same period a year ago, according to Open Table, which tracks restaurant reservations.

The surge in coronavirus cases menaces lives and threatens to overwhelm the health care system. But just the fear of the virus is battering sectors that depend on in-person consumers, from caterers and event organizers to waiters and bartenders.

“You can’t make people get married,” said Jason Delaney, economics professor at Georgia Gwinnett College. “You can’t make people go to a comedy club.”

While the metro Atlanta economy has been adding back jobs since the shutdowns of the spring, it is still 78,200 jobs shy of February levels, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

More than 200,000 people are officially unemployed in Georgia, not counting anyone who is no longer looking for a job. Many of the jobless have been helped by government benefits that are slated to end soon, falling over what some call a benefits cliff.

They can’t all find work.

“There is not enough demand out there,” Delaney said. “There aren’t enough jobs.”

Neither the hiring nor the shortfalls have been spread evenly, said Mathieu Stevenson, chief executive of Snagajob, an online platform that lists millions of positions nationally. “Hourly hiring is recovering, but in very different sectors than pre-COVID.”

In late November, Snagajob was listing 56,000 hourly jobs in Atlanta, Stevenson said. Listings of warehousing and logistics jobs are up 150% from pre-pandemic levels, while gig, grocery and healthcare jobs are more than 20% higher.

But hospitality listings are still down 49%.

Economist Abbey Omodunbi of the PNC Financial Services Group said that sector has been buffeted by outside forces and will not rebound soon. “The employment outlook in leisure and hospitality in the near term is dependent on additional stimulus and the path of the virus.”

To be sure, some businesses are growing:

— Silicon Ranch Corp. is building a solar project in Houston County that will employ about 300 workers, according to an announcement by Gov. Brian Kemp.

— Masterbrand Cabinets is adding 400 jobs in a Butts County facility.

— Dongwon Tech will add 40 jobs at a manufacturing plant in Hall County.

The state’s official unemployment rate — which had soared into double digits in the spring — dropped to 4.5% in October as 25,000 jobs were added.

But even at that pace of hiring, Georgia won’t come back to last February’s employment level until next May. More critically, experts say the economic wounds may take longer to heal, partly because much of the damage has been done to households with little financial cushion.

Atlanta’s higher-wage jobs — $60,000-a-year or more — have increased since the start of the year by about 3%, according to Harvard. In contrast, there are 18.5% fewer jobs that pay $27,000 or below.

The pain has also been demographically uneven, said Raphael Bostic, president of the Atlanta Federal Reserve Bank.

“The minority populations are being hit much harder than others by the pandemic and the recovery for them will be tougher,” he said, speaking after the annual meeting of the Metro Atlanta Chamber, where he was named 2022 chair of the board.

That economic damage is not just bad news for low-wage workers, said Bostic.

Trouble in low-income households means they are slower to pay their rent, need more help from the social service safety net and rack up debts that hamstring their choices for years. Because they will spend less, they will contribute less to the economic demand that produces jobs.

Overall consumer spending in Atlanta is down 10% from February, and much of the shortfall is because so many lower-wage workers are not spending, according to Harvard.

Meanwhile, the failure of small businesses means less demand for services like accountants and lawyers, more empty store fronts and less need for workers.

And as the pandemic dragged on, many layoffs that had been viewed as temporary have become permanent, said Bostic. “This is definitely a headwind for the economy. Until this starts lifting off, the recovery’s pace will be constrained.”

Still, if a business can bet on the recovery, it must, said Carranza, CharterUP’s CFO.

Even during the pandemic, the three-year-old company has been adding engineers. With hope for a vaccine and economic recovery, the company is now looking to fill sales and office positions, too, he said.

There’s no predicting the timing of a post-pandemic economy, but those who are not ready will stumble, Carranza said.

“We definitely want to invest in growing our teams,” he said. “We want to position ourselves. Even in a trough, we know there will be bounce-back. Eventually.”

Consumer spending, metro Atlanta

...compared to pre-pandemic levels

Total: -10.2%

Entertainment and recreation: -63.7%

Grocery: +14.1%

Healthcare: -1.3%

Restaurants and hotels: -20.6%

Retail: +12.9%

Transportation: -40.2%

________________

Job growth or loss, metro Atlanta

...compared to pre-pandemic levels

High-income ($60,000 or more): +3.1%

Middle-income ($27,000-$60,000): -6.1%

Low-income (less than $27,000): -18.5%

Source: Harvard University Opportunity Tracker

________________

Georgians who have lost income since March 13

Total: 48.3%

By gender

Men: 46.9%

Women: 49.5%

By ethnicity

Hispanic or Latino: 72.6%

White alone: 40.7%

Black: 55.9%

Asian: 45.3%

Two or more races: 49.0%

By income

Less than $25,000: 56.4%

$25,000 - $34,999: 52.6%

$35,000 - $49,999: 52.6%

$50,000 - $74,999: 54.1%

$75,000 - $99,999: 38.5%

$100,000 - $149,999: 41.1%

$150,000 - $199,999: 34.9%

$200,000 and above: 31.2%

By education

Less than high school: 40.8%

High school or GED: 56.6%

Some college/associate’s degree: 53.1%

Bachelor’s degree or higher: 36.2%

Source: Census Bureau

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