When Amgen announced a permanent work-from-home policy a couple of weeks ago, you could almost hear cheers from thousands of employees. But could you hear the groans from small business operators and anyone who’s concerned about the economic welfare of Ventura County?No doubt many employees would prefer Amgen’s new policy. One recent survey said 75 percent of adults who have been working from home during the pandemic want to continue doing so, at least some of the time.But the many small businesses around Amgen – Ventura County’s largest employer – are bummed. They depend on the 5,500 workers going to and from the campus each day. “It’s definitely affected business,” a server at the Sidestreet Café told the Simi Valley Acorn. “At Sidestreet, you get to know people who come in all the time, but now we don’t see them.” What’s more, this is bad news for Ventura County. Its economy has been faring much worse than previously believed. (More on that in a minute.) Amgen’s new policy can only make matters worse.In case you missed it, the big pharmaceutical company announced the dramatic new policy by saying: “Most of our employees who are currently working remotely will continue to do so for a majority of their time, even after the pandemic ends.” Amgen’s official statement went on to say that the company is not initiating any changes to its Thousand Oaks campus, at least not now. “Though some staff may come to campus less frequently, Amgen will remain engaged and involved in the communities in which we live and work.” (Although I haven’t seen a great deal of evidence of Amgen being either engaged or involved. Just my opinion.) One big concern is that many of the Amgen workers – and their $100,000-plus average salaries – will move far away. Californians have been moving out of state faster than folks from other states have been moving in. That’s been going on for years, of course, but there’s anecdotal evidence that the pandemic has intensified California’s out-migration problem. People want to move to where the living is cheaper, after all. And with remote work as a permanent company policy, Amgen’s workers are now empowered to do so. That would only intensify the county’s out-migration problem.
Another concern is that Amgen may downsize in Thousand Oaks. It is the area’s biggest landowner. Including its 19-acre campus, Amgen reportedly owns 45 properties that amounts to a taxable value of $1.4 billion.
But the biggest concern is that Amgen will move away entirely or shrink to a nub. To be sure, the company has not indicated it intends to do that. However, the suspicion has been planted because Amgen’s Thousand Oaks campus has been methodically shrinking as the company overall has been ballooning. Over the past 13 years it has gone from 7,000 local employees down to a reported 5,574. An article in the Business Journal last year pointed out that during that span, as Amgen cut its local roster by 20 percent, it grew its total employment by 60 percent.As a backdrop to Amgen’s decision is the news last December that Ventura County’s economy has fared worse, much worse, than previously understood. That’s when the Bureau of Labor Statistics released revisions to economic data going back to 2001.
Matthew Fienup and Dan Hamilton of the Center for Economic Research and Forecasting at California Lutheran University put it this way: “Whereas previous estimates indicated that the county’s economy grew by $2.1 billion from 2007 to 2018, the revised estimates indicate the county’s economy shrank by $8.6 billion during that time. This is a 15.4 percent decline in total economic activity.”That’s startling. And they went on to say that while the U.S. economy grew every year from 2010 through 2019, Ventura County’s economy contracted in five of those 10 years. Oh, and Ventura County lost population in three of the last four years. And the civilian labor force has shrunk for seven years.We could go on, but you get the point. The economy is bad. And since Ventura County has strict anti-growth laws on the books, it doesn’t seem likely that it can grow its way out of its doldrums.
On the other hand, Fienup and Hamilton pointed out this salubrious possibility: The work-from-home trend could benefit the county, apart from Amgen’s decision. That is to say: workers may be interested in moving further away from Downtown Los Angeles and other employment centers if they are not required to go to the office much. That means they may be interested in moving to, say, Westlake Village or Thousand Oaks or any other of the pleasant places in Ventura County.If that hoped-for in-migration comes true, will it be enough to counter the out-migration, including the expected new out-migration from Amgen? Good question. In fact, that’s the big question for Ventura County and its economy.Charles Crumpley is editor and publisher of the Business Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.