PALMER — Mat-Su bucked the jobs trend of a pandemic year, experiencing nearly flat losses in 2020.
Some sectors — retail, health care, construction — actually added workers, said Neal Fried, a state labor economist.
At Spenard Builders Supply in Palmer, the store’s employee numbers stayed even or maybe grew by a few people, according to office manager Danielle Peltier. Recruiting workers was the hard part.
“The main thing I noticed was just that we were extremely busy,” Peltier said. “With the pandemic, it’s like the world stops. A lot of the world did stop; however, the building industry did not. We were breaking records for sales last year.”
The situation in Mat-Su wasn’t the case statewide. Alaska as a whole lost 8% of its jobs between 2019 and 2020, state data shows. Anchorage employee numbers dropped by 8.2% or a little over 12,000 jobs; Fairbanks dropped by 6.5% and Juneau by 11.6%.
Mat-Su was “sort of an outlier,” Fried said.
Here, jobs dropped by 0.8% or 188 positions, an almost statistically flat number, he said. It’s important to remember these are jobs based in Mat-Su. If a resident worked in Anchorage or on the North Slope, and was laid off, the statistics don’t show it.
Sales tax information from Wasilla and Palmer wasn’t available to back up the state jobs data. Finance officials at both cities did not respond to requests for information.
Not all sectors grew in Mat-Su. Tourism-reliant Talkeetna, without cruise passengers and big lodges, saw restaurants and breweries and others laying off employees to stay afloat.
Overall, only a few regions fared better than Mat-Su, Fried said, and none of them were as large or relatively urban. The Northwest Arctic Borough grew by 0.4% and the Delta Junction region rose by 2.2%, adding 54 jobs. Yakutat grew by 6% or 18 positions.
On the other side of those trends was Skagway, the small, cruise-ship dependent community at the top of the Inside Passage that experienced the state’s worst job loss: a nearly 50% employment reduction — 1080 jobs to just over 560 — between 2019 and 2020, according to state data.
Federal restrictions on cruise travel decimated the economies of many Southeast Alaska communities in 2020.
Skagway still hasn’t recovered, locals say.
“It was really very apocalyptic. I’ve lived here 32 years and I never thought in a million years we’d go a day when there weren’t any cruise ships,” said Blaine Mero, office administrator for the Skagway Chamber of Commerce. “It was so ghostlike. It was very sad, actually.”
The explanation for Mat-Su’s relative success?
Fried offers several theories. For one, around the state, last year generally marked a time of lower earnings but higher income, so people had more money to spend. The region, known as one of the state’s fastest growing for years, experienced a building boom. The construction sector added 218 jobs.
More curiously, the health care sector added 224 jobs, Fried said. That’s strange, given the combination of COVID-19 restrictions earlier in the pandemic and an overall decline generally in people seeking medical and dental care.
But there were at least two companies with new hires last year. A new skilled nursing facility in Palmer operated by Maple Springs opened in early 2020 and has 96 employees now, according to vice president Marc Dunn.
Employees with Capstone Clinic, a Wasilla-based business that obtained numerous state COVID-19 testing contracts, also probably factored into the increase, said Dr. Wade Erickson, Capstone medical director.
The small-government atmosphere in Mat-Su also came into play, though to what degree isn’t clear.
Many retail and restaurant businesses remained open in the Valley for much of the year while other cities and communities, including Anchorage, enacted mask orders and capacity restrictions to control the spread of COVID-19 and prevent a surge of patients from overwhelming hospitals.
And the Mat-Su retail sector, which gained 252 jobs, might have benefited in another way from its relationship to Anchorage.
About 30% of the adults in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough commute to Anchorage for work. Especially early on in the pandemic, traffic statistics on the Glenn Highway showed fewer commuters, indicating more Mat-Su residents either not working or working remotely.
That may have translated to more people shopping closer to home, at Fred Meyer or Carrs in Palmer or Wasilla, instead of picking up groceries in Anchorage on the way home, Fried said.
“And you had less social distancing, and all those things,” he said.