Answering key questions about the economic crisis: Have we hit bottom yet? ‘Far from it’

As the Dayton region and state begin slowly reopening after the economy was virtually shutdown due to the coronavirus there is uncertainty about how long the financial pain will linger for residents and businesses.

Experts say a successful economic reboot depends upon businesses making customers and employees feel safe.

But as businesses prepare to reopen there are many uncertainties: Will some companies not survive because customers stay away? How well will families that dealt with job loss regain their financial footing? If there is another surge in infections, will that again stall the economy?

Ohio’s new unemployment claims totaled nearly 1.2 million over the seven weeks ending May 2, outpacing the combined total over the last three years, according to the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services. Nationally the total is 33.5 million jobs lost during that period.

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The Dayton region’s largest source of jobs, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, has nearly 30,000 people working on the base - civilian, military and contractors. There have been no layoffs or furloughs of government or military employees. And essential businesses like grocery stores have added staff.

But another big Ohio employer, Honda of America, furloughed nearly all Ohio employees and huge swaths of the economy — such as restaurants and retail stores — are shut down and employees are out of work. Those occupations — retail, fast food, cashiers and restaurant servers — are among the top ten jobs by numbers of employees in the Dayton Metropolitan Area, consisting of Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties, according to federal data compiled by Policy Matters Ohio.

The Dayton Daily News Path Forward initiative seeks to find solutions to our region's most pressing problems. To that end, we interviewed four local business and economic experts about the economic crisis and how the recovery may play out.

Those interviewed included Julie Sullivan, executive vice president of regional development at the Dayton Development Coalition; Tom Maher, co-owner of Manpower of Dayton; Chris Kershner, executive vice president at the Dayton Area Chamber of Commerce and Thomas L. Traynor, professor of economics and dean of the Wright State University Raj Soin College of Business.

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Here is a compilation of what they said in response to five questions.

1. Why has the economic impact of the coronavirus crisis and shutdown spread so widely across economic sectors even though some businesses had the ability to have employees work from home or to remain open as “essential.”

“We live and work in a global economy, and the current situation reinforces how connected the Dayton region’s economy is to the world outside Ohio and the U.S.,” Sullivan said. “We have companies from across the globe operating in the region, and even locally-owned companies often depend on foreign supply chains. Combine that with a global pandemic that has disrupted the world’s largest economies, and the challenge we face right now is unprecedented.”

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Traynor said there is a ripple effect through the economy. Businesses shut down or reduced production, reducing the supply of products and services. Demand fell as people stayed home. Incomes dropped for both individuals and businesses, and many fear that will continue, leading businesses to forecast continued decline in demand going forward, he said.

“Thus, most industries are impacted, and even many businesses that function in a virtual/remote environment have suffered lost business and have furloughed or laid off employees,” Traynor said.

Kershner said every business is affected directly or indirectly.

“When private industry is frozen and you cease the buying and selling of goods, the economy crumbles,” Kershner said. “Our economy wants and needs to get back to work.”

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2. Where do we go from here in the short term as Ohio’s economy began the process of reopening on May 4?

How the recovery proceeds will depend in large part on what the public does, Traynor said.

“As public policies gradually allow more economic activity, people will decide for themselves how many of those activities they will undertake. We can expect a wide range of responses from the public,” Traynor said.

“Some businesses may find themselves needing to assure customers that they are operating in a coronavirus-safe manner in order to convince some of them to return,” Traynor added.

Kershner said businesses are laser-focused on safety and he believes “with the proper safety precautions in place our economy can restart and get back to business.”

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine laid out plans for a gradual reopening that began May 4, with rules designed to protect people from infection with the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

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“We need to adjust our idea of normal,” Sullivan said. “Face coverings, taking our temperatures and keeping our distance need to be embraced by our business community and consumers.”

She said the coalition’s efforts have focused on giving businesses support and connecting them with resources from Ohio and JobsOhio, which is the state’s publicly funded private development arm, as well as federal stimulus funding. Sullivan urged businesses needing help with regulations or finding personal protective equipment to contact the coalition, the state or their industry associations.

>> How Dayton region small businesses adapted to survive

“We do see companies moving forward. We have active projects for new operations,” Sullivan said. “Companies are hiring employees, both for operations related to the pandemic and for jobs available before it started. Ensuring these companies keep their momentum is critical to our recovery.”

3. Have we hit bottom economically? If not, when will that occur and what does “bottom” look like?

“Unfortunately, we do not believe we have ‘bottomed out.’ Far from it,” Maher said. “Realistically the ‘bottom’ is likely many many months away.”

He said in a global economy local businesses and individuals have very little control over the broader economic forces at play in the worldwide downturn.

“This is so different from past downturns we can’t predict,” Sullivan said. “For economic development organizations, our goal is to help companies get what they need to rebound as quickly as possible, and make sure we retain the jobs we have. We’re working with JobsOhio and our local economic development partners to support local companies so they can maintain their operations, while still working to attract new jobs to the region.”

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Traynor said there is always a lag in knowing when the technical “bottom” is reached in a recession because it takes time to measure the declines in Gross Domestic Product and other indicators of an economic recession, which at this point has not been officially declared. But “bottom” isn’t the end of pain and Traynor said it may take many years for some of those who lost their jobs to recover to their pre-recession income.

“The (bottom) of any recession is essentially the point at which economic activity is as far below its potential as it is going to get during that particular downturn. The return to a strong economy will still remain to be accomplished,” Traynor said. “Employment trends typically lag behind GDP trends and employment is likely to continue falling for three to five months after GDP hits bottom.”

Kershner said it is clear that fall out from the COVID-19 crisis will be long-lasting but he remains optimistic about the resilience of Dayton region companies.

“Our companies will bounce back stronger and more successful on the other side,” Kershner said. “It’s getting to the other side that is painful right now.”

4. Has the nature and mix of our local economy made things better or worse for our local region?

The Great Recession of 2008-2009 hit the Dayton region hard, in part because of the heavy reliance on major employers like General Motors, Delphi and NCR, all of which shuttered local operations, delivering hard lessons about the need for economic diversity.

“Today the region boasts stability in industries like logistics & distribution, health care, national defense, information technology and manufacturing,” said Kershner. “(That) helps our economy rebound quicker after a downturn.”

As painful as the Great Recession was, it would have been worse without WPAFB, where employment doubled over the last two decades, Sullivan said. The combined economic impact of WPAFB, the Springfield Air National Guard Base and the Dayton Veterans Administration Medical Center is estimated at $16.68 billion in the 14-county Dayton region, according to an analysis the Perduco Group did for the Dayton Development Coalition last year.

“Wright Patterson Air Force Base is the key difference between this region and most others,” Traynor said. “It is the single most important part of the Dayton region’s economic base, has continued operations, and most importantly has served as a steady source of income and employment opportunities in the area.”

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But those interviewed acknowledged that the region faces big challenges going forward.

“My greatest concern is with retail and hospitality sectors, especially those that are locally owned and may not have the capital required to recover,” Maher said. “The result of this economic crisis will likely be the permanent loss of well-known retail establishments and the demise of many “Mom and Pop” retail and hospitality family businesses.”

5. How will we know when we are on the upswing and what does recovery look like?

“Increasing levels of employment will be the indicator of the upswing,” Maher said. “Employment levels should improve in most large manufacturing, logistics and customer service operations. We very well may see significant onshoring of manufacturing and customer service operations as well as expanded and geographically diversified supplier networks. This will create many additional opportunities.”

Job postings, a reduction in layoff notices and an increase in consumer confidence are typically the hallmarks of an economic recovery, said Sullivan, but she said recovery from a pandemic may look different than from a traditional downturn.

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“Businesses that find a way to continue their operations while making their employees and customers feel safe have the best chance of survival. These two pieces are critical to our economy moving forward,” Sullivan said. “Companies have put together their playbooks for how to operate in these circumstances, and Ohio’s responsible reopening plan gives us a solid structure.”

Kershner said the way companies have reacted to the crisis will help in the recovery.

“COVID-19 has forced technology adaptation, workplace flexiblity and innovation. Returning to work could mean returning to a new way of doing work for many businesses and employees,” Kershner said. “COVID-19 may have pushed back that growth by a number of months, but it will still happen and Dayton will be firing on all cylinders again.”

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Recovery also will be visible regionally in the growth of sales tax revenues and data on average weekly hours worked as companies increase production, said Traynor, but there will be a lingering impact from the loss of income during the downturn.

“Since this recession is very unusual in that industries were shut down by government policy, some may snap back quickly to sales levels and employment levels that are fairly close to pre-recession levels,” Traynor said. “However, a broad-based recovery will require growth across many industries, which will take time given the large number of households and businesses that are now in significantly worse financial shape than they were just two months ago.”

Reporter Thomas Gnau contributed to this report.

Top 10 most common occupations by employment - Dayton metropolitan area - 2019

OccupationTotal employmentMedian hourly wageMedian annual salary
Registered nurse*12,100$32.64 $67,900
Retail salespeople11,130$11.01 $22,910
Fast food and counter workers*10,750$9.74 $20,260
Cashiers*8,880$9.78 $20,350
Office clerks8,640$16.75 $34,840
Laborers and freight, stock, and material movers *7,690$13.66 $28,410
Customer service representatives6,440$16.50 $34,320
Home health and personal care aides*6,020$11.17 $23,230
Waiters and waitresses5,980$9.81 $20,410
Stockers and order fillers*5,950$11.61 $24,140

*Considered essential under Ohio stay-at-home directive

Source: Compiled by Policy Matters Ohio from Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics Survey for Montgomery, Greene and Miami counties.

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