In summary

California’s unemployment rate is decreasing, but nearly 1 million workers have disappeared from the workforce.

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The single biggest challenge facing California small businesses: Labor shortages.

A whopping 98% of small business owners in the Golden State looking for full- or part-time employees say that difficulty hiring is affecting their bottom line, according to a survey released this morning by Goldman Sachs’ 10,000 Small Business Voices. That’s far more than the 81% who pinpoint inflation, the 77% who cite supply chain issues and the 70% who identify the surge in COVID-19 cases as drags on their revenue.

The news comes as California’s economy shows glimmers of improvement: The unemployment rate fell to 6.5% in December from a revised rate of 7% in November as employers added 50,700 jobs, the state Employment Development Department reported Friday. That accounts for more than a quarter of the nation’s overall job gains that month, prompting Gov. Gavin Newsom to issue a statement praising California’s “outsized” role in job creation.

But the figures obscure what Michael Bernick, a former EDD director and attorney for law firm Duane Morris, calls a “major storyline” in California: “the disappearing workforce.”

  • Bernick: “The number of Californians listed as employed — in payroll jobs or as independent contractors — did increase over the month by 116,900 persons. However, it remains 919,800 workers below the number of workers employed in California in January 2020, just before the pandemic.”

The state seems aware that workers are disappearing. Newsom’s recent budget blueprint proposes new workforce development programs on top of the more than 20 approved in last year’s budget. But the state Legislature’s nonpartisan fiscal analyst raised questions about that approach in a presentation last week to the Senate budget committee: “Can so many efforts be effectively launched at once? What are the specific problems the state aims to solve with all these efforts?”

Meanwhile, omicron continues to wreak havoc on California’s workforce. Some long-term care facilities, which house some of the state’s most vulnerable residents, are so short-staffed that they’re relying on COVID-positive employees to care for patients, CalMatters’ Kristen Hwang reports. Although COVID has exacerbated nursing homes’ staffing shortages, it didn’t create them.

The problem is so acute that the federal government on Friday devoted $103 million to improving retention of health care workers through programs that combat burnout and promote wellness and mental health. Four California providers will receive a combined $8.7 million.

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The coronavirus bottom line: As of Saturday, California had 7,123,571 confirmed cases (+1.8% from previous day) and 77,722 deaths (+0.3% from previous day), according to state data. CalMatters is also tracking coronavirus hospitalizations by county.

California has administered 68,536,024 vaccine doses, and 72.6% of eligible Californians are fully vaccinated.

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1. State can proceed with early releases

Image via iStock

As crime continues to make headlines in California, state prison officials got the go-ahead Thursday to implement rules that allow for the potential early release of repeat offenders with serious and violent criminal histories. The change came after a superior court judge reversed her own temporary restraining order from last month, dealing a blow to the 28 district attorneys — including Sacramento County District Attorney and attorney general candidate Anne Marie Schubert — who had challenged the rules, arguing they would permit the early release of people convicted of domestic violence, human trafficking, animal cruelty and other crimes. According to the state prison department, about 1,500 inmates in minimum-security facilities serving time for a nonviolent second strike will now be eligible to earn enough good conduct credits to reduce their sentences by two-thirds instead of one-half.

Meanwhile, after an extensive manhunt and $250,000 reward, a transient man with a lengthy criminal history was charged with murder Friday for fatally stabbing 24-year-old Brianna Kupfer while she worked in a Los Angeles furniture store. The story made national headlines, prompting Los Angeles Times columnist Erika Smith to ask why the fatal shooting of Tioni Theus — a 16-year-old Black girl and sex trafficking victim whose body was left on the on-ramp to the 110 Freeway — didn’t get similar levels of attention.

2. Colorado Fire ignites in middle of winter

The Colorado Fire burns toward the Bixby Bridge in Big Sur on Jan. 22, 2022. Photo by Karl Mondon, Bay Area News Group

Fire season returned with a vengeance in California over the weekend as the Colorado Fire erupted near Big Sur, forcing the evacuation of about 500 residents, indefinitely closing a stretch of the iconic Highway 1 and destroying a yurt. The blaze, which had charred around 1,050 acres and was 25% contained as of Sunday morning, was whipped by fierce winds that crisscrossed much of the state, toppling trees and power lines and leaving thousands of people without power. “It’s unusual to have a fire this size here on the coast at the end of January,” said CalFire spokeswoman Cecile Juliette. She added, “It just doesn’t make sense anymore to call it a fire season when we get big fires like this year round. We are really calling it a fire year at this point.”

Three key Friday wildfire updates:

  • Vice President Kamala Harris joined Newsom, California U.S. Sen. Alex Padilla and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack on a visit to the San Bernardino National Forest, where she announced $600 million in federal relief funding for California communities devastated by recent wildfires.
  • Insurance Commissioner Ricardo Lara approved plans for the state’s insurance plan of last resort to start offering coverage on Feb. 1 to previously ineligible farms, wineries, ranches and other outdoor agricultural businesses at risk of wildfire damage.
  • And a bipartisan group of state lawmakers unveiled a proposal to hire 1,124 new CalFire firefighters — including 356 full-time positions — and set mandated minimum staffing levels to protect both firefighters and communities.

3. Tense Roe vs. Wade anniversary

People rally in support of abortion rights at the state Capitol in Sacramento on May 21, 2019. Photo by Rich Pedroncelli, AP Photo

Saturday — which marked the 49th anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court upholding the constitutional right to abortion in Roe vs. Wade — was a fraught day for many Californians. Newsom and First Partner Jennifer Siebel Newsom joined state and federal officials and advocates for a virtual rally in support of abortion rights, during which the governor pledged that “California will continue to be a beacon of light” for women seeking abortions “while some across our nation are purposefully and deliberately choosing to attack women’s reproductive rights.” Meanwhile, thousands of Californians took to the streets in cities ranging from San Francisco to Los Angeles both in support of and opposition to abortion. “I believe this year is going to mark a turning point in our long journey to build a culture of life,” Los Angeles Archbishop Jose Horacio Gomez said at an annual march and rally called One Life LA. The Saturday events came a day after the California Legislative Women’s Caucus unveiled a package of bills to prepare the state for a surge in patients seeking abortions should the nation’s highest court this summer overturn Roe vs. Wade.

For more on the rapidly changing landscape of reproductive rights in California and across the country, join me on Wednesday at 10 a.m., where I’ll be speaking on a panel hosted by The 19th, a nonprofit newsroom covering gender, politics and policy. Register here.

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CalMatters commentary

CalMatters columnist Dan Walters: Will California’s new school data system really work?

New jails aren’t the answer: Santa Clara County should reject a proposal to build a new maximum security jail with 500 mental health beds and focus instead on expanding safe alternatives to incarceration, argue Susan Ellenberg, Sheila James Kuehl and Keith Carson of the Santa Clara, Los Angeles and Alameda County Boards of Supervisors, respectively.

Heeding California’s red flag warning: Here are four actions the state should prioritize in fighting wildfires and creating healthy forests, write Ashley Conrad-Saydah and Hugh Safford of Vibrant Planet.

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Other things worth your time

LAUSD students must wear non-cloth masks starting today. // Los Angeles Times

More than 70 San Diego Unified employees get termination notices for not getting COVID-19 vaccine. // San Diego Union-Tribune

What 2022 election? California Republicans grim on beating Newsom. // Politico

Does LA want a billionaire mayor? Rick Caruso may find out. // Los Angeles Times

East Bay Assembly candidates’ big statement: No corporate contributions accepted. // San Francisco Chronicle

Alex Padilla’s first year in the Senate saw stalemates on his two most personal issues. // San Francisco Chronicle

Senate advances antitrust legislation despite reservations from California Democrats. // Washington Post

Orange County pushes back against California housing mandate. // Los Angeles Times

Bay Area real estate: Number of homes for sale hits record low. // Mercury News

A dispute over a fence exposes deep-seated divisions about coastal access on train tracks. // San Diego Union-Tribune

How Sacramento’s Democratic Tsakopoulos family landed pro-Trump college for campus project. // Sacramento Bee

Former Mayor Willie Brown cashes in even as massive development project remains stalled. // San Francisco Standard

Former governor Arnold Schwarzenegger involved in multi-vehicle accident. // CNN

Jeffrey told me his story of addiction and recovery. Then the Tenderloin pulled him back and he found fentanyl. // San Francisco Chronicle

Keeping the streets of San Francisco dealer-free by day. // New Yorker

Mother: California teachers manipulated child to change gender identity. // Associated Press

Train robberies are a problem in Los Angeles, and a blame game has ensued. // Wall Street Journal

Truck drivers in Southern California seek to join Teamsters. // Times of San Diego

‘Ticking swine-bomb’: The population of feral pigs has exploded in California. // SFGATE

See you tomorrow.

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Emily Hoeven wrote the daily WhatMatters newsletter for three years at CalMatters . Her reporting, essays, and opinion columns have been published in San Francisco Weekly, the Deseret News, the San Francisco...