DULUTH – Despite soaring unemployment, the phones aren't ringing so often at SOAR Career Solutions, a nonprofit employment service.

One client saw her housekeeping job at Holiday Inn disappear.

Another had her interview at St. Luke's canceled amid a hiring freeze.

One man grew discouraged after he couldn't get hired at Target.

All they can do now is wait.

"What we're seeing right now is a lot of inactivity — they don't know what to do," said Jason Beckman, program director at SOAR.

While unemployment soars throughout Minnesota and the country, Duluth's economy has been particularly hit hard by the COVID-19 downturn, with two of its major industries — hospitality and medical workers — seeing major job losses.

Duluth's CareerForce center has helped process more than 18,000 unemployment insurance applications from St. Louis County residents in the past month, a quarter of which are in food, drink and hospitality. Last year, the office handled about 800 unemployment applications over the same time period.

The shutdown especially affects women and nonwhite workers, who are more heavily represented in local leisure and hospitality jobs than the Duluth workforce overall, state data shows.

Just a few months ago many employers — in health care, construction, manufacturing, hospitality and elsewhere — were desperately seeking more workers. When closures are lifted and spending ramps back up, there's no guarantee that will be the case again.

"How many people will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to go back to work?" Beckman said, pointing to a child-care shortage. "This is popping a lot of bubbles."

Short-term vs. long-term

Health care, which employs one in four workers in Duluth, has also taken a hit as hospitals temporarily lay off staff while elective procedures are postponed.

Health care jobs are expected to recover quickly as nonemergency care resumes, however, and in normal times they were expected to increase up to 12% over the next decade.

Restaurants and bars "may face a more uncertain future," according to a University of Minnesota Extension report.

"Travel and tourism may be slower to return to its baseline," the report said. "In addition, many restaurants and bars are small businesses and may struggle to stay [in] business through this period."

Gov. Tim Walz said it could be 18 months until business fully returns to normal in Minnesota as COVID-19 precautions continue until a vaccine is widely available.

Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said Monday she's confident travelers will want to return to Duluth — and pump money into the local economy — as soon as possible: "I'm not ready to cancel summer."

City assistance

The city is readying millions in assistance for local businesses, including $1.2 million for small grants and more than $560,000 for low-interest loans.

When developing Duluth's comprehensive approach to keeping businesses afloat, the city's economic development director, Chris Fleege, said it was important to add to state and federal resources and not replace them.

Larson said officials are paying attention to where jobs are being lost so they can respond appropriately.

"We have thousands of people that have just lost their jobs, and that is really, really scary," she said. "We can track where our other investments need to be in those same industries, same sectors, to help build out future opportunity."

Local residents who have lost their job are encouraged to visit call 218-302-8400 or e-mail workforcedevelopment@duluthmn.gov.