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By Eryka Forquer

As restrictions continued to ease and more people shifted to a pre-pandemic way of life, the state and county saw more decreases in the unemployment rate, largely because of the job gains in the leisure and hospitality sector, according to the latest unemployment data.

This past May, unemployment in Orange County was recorded at 5.9%, a decrease from the 6.2% in April and more than half below an estimate of 14.9% at the same time last year. With a labor force of approximately 1.55 million people, nearly 91,200 county residents were out of a job.   

Data published by the California Employment Development Department showed a decline in the state’s unemployment rate as a whole. California’s unemployment rate was 7.9% in May, a slight change from its 8% rate in April.

While California’s unemployment rate was only a fraction of a percentage point down, employment increased by 39,500 in May, up to a total of 17,418,000 civilians with a job.    

Unemployment rates in the South Orange County cities of San Clemente, Dana Point and San Juan Capistrano aligned with state and county trends. The number of residents without a job decreased in the three cities from April to May, decreasing their unemployment rates.

According to the jobs data, Dana Point’s unemployment rate dipped below 5%, the lowest of the three cities and down from the 5.3% reported in April. San Juan had a jobless rate of 5.1% for May, while San Clemente had a slight decrease from 5.5% in April to 5.4% for May.

In addition to an improvement in the unemployment rate, the recent data from the Employment Development Department also reported growth in Orange County job sectors, including amusement, gambling and recreation, educational services, arts, entertainment and recreation, manufacturing, trade, transportation and utilities.

Construction was the only sector to decline in employment, with a loss of 1,500 jobs throughout the month.

The recent findings highlight a significant increase of employment in the leisure and hospitality sector, making it the industry with the largest job gains for two consecutive months in Orange County.

As more people return to restaurants, bars and vacation spots, restaurant employment increased by 2.8% from April to May, translating to an additional 3,200 jobs. Food services and drinking establishments had a 2.7% upward change and also added 3,200 positions.   

While the county experienced job growth in the restaurant industry, Dana Point Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Vickie McMurchie said many restaurants are still facing challenges.

“Unfortunately, Dana Point businesses are still struggling to meet their pre-pandemic employment numbers,” McMurchie said. “Based on feedback we’re hearing from our restaurant employers, front-of-house employees are slowly returning, but they’re really struggling to fill the back-of-house roles on a consistent basis.”   

While the unemployment rate continues to improve and Orange County industry sectors experience job growth, small businesses in particular are still being impacted by the economic repercussions of the pandemic.  

“A majority of our small business owners are working incredibly long hours, seven days a week including holidays and filling in where there are staffing voids,” McMurchie said. 

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