Tim Saunders was just one day into his new job with Virginia Career Works when health officials identified the first case of coronavirus in Lynchburg.
A few days later, Gov. Ralph Northam issued a sweeping stay-at-home order to arrest the spread of the fast-moving virus, effectively shutting down much of the state’s economy.
Saunders — a veteran television news reporter who left his job at WDBJ7 earlier this year to join the Central Virginia Workforce Development Board — found himself thrust into a crisis wreaking havoc on small businesses and the livelihoods of workers who form the backbone of the local economy.
“I had to dive right in,” Saunders, 39, said in an interview. “When this all started, we were all expecting it to be something that would last a couple of weeks, maybe a couple of months at most. But I don’t think any of us could have envisioned the long term impact that this was going to have.”
As the business engagement and outreach coordinator for the board, Saunders is the public face of the local effort to keep vulnerable businesses afloat and to get people back to work.
One of his first tasks was to help coordinate the distribution of emergency funding to 10 small businesses affected by the pandemic. In addition to providing assistance to employers, much of the board’s work has been focused on helping out-of-work employees collect benefits and find new jobs.
With social distancing a health necessity, they’ve turned to virtual job fairs and digital training seminars, among other creative methods.
“The main thing that we do is try to support existing employers by building up a pipeline of workers that they can draw from,” Saunders said. “We want the employers who are here to have a pool of talent that they can choose from and we want people who live here to be able to find work.”
It promises to be a herculean task. In recent weeks, more than 9,000 people have filed for unemployment insurance in Lynchburg and the neighboring counties, according to the Virginia Employment Commission.
The Hill City’s unemployment rate has shot up to 12% — surpassing the city’s peak unemployment rate of nearly 9% in the wake of the 2008 Great Recession.
Grappling with an economic downturn is nothing new for Saunders, a Bedford native. He began covering the Lynchburg region for WDBJ7 in late 2007 and had a front-row seat to the economic collapse that came crashing down on the area a year later.
He vividly remembers covering the seemingly endless layoffs, the businesses that closed their doors for good and the large corporations that chose to pull out of the region. In the aftermath, he closely followed the recovery, highlighting businesses that worked tirelessly to reestablish themselves.
“The thing that has prepared me best for this job is the relationships I’ve built within the community,” he said, referencing his time as an award-winning journalist.
Ben Bowman, the executive director of Central Virginia Career Works, agrees. After a competitive interview process, Saunders was hired for his breadth of knowledge and his ability to distill complicated topics into something more digestible.
“Tim has been an absolute blessing to have on board during this time,” Bowman said. “To have someone like Tim who understands the value of good reporting is so important because we need to do a very good job with communicating what’s most important to our citizens.”
While the local manufacturing and health care industries have fared better than other sectors of the economy, food service and hospitality businesses have been especially hard hit. Saunders is optimistic the Lynchburg region will recover, as it did following 2008. But he is acutely aware of the challenge ahead.
“We have to accept that this pandemic is going to reshape our workforce,” he said. “There will be opportunity for people on the other side of this but they may be working in a career field that they hadn’t considered before.”
“I know it’s hard right now and from this vantage point, there’s so much uncertainty,” he said. “But if the previous recession taught us anything, it’s that Lynchburg has a tremendous amount of potential when it comes to growth.”