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August Job Numbers Paint Picture of Complex Recovery

Washington Employment Security Department

16,800 more jobs in Washington were filled in mid-August, a strong showing but a slowdown from June and July. Statistics from the state Employment Security Department also show the state’s unemployment rate has settled around five percent, lower than the peaks of 2020 but slightly higher than pre-pandemic averages.

Together, economists say, the numbers indicate not a slowdown of recovery, but a tight labor market and an employment landscape that has mostly reclaimed its losses from 2020 while reflecting bigger changes among workers and employers.

“August’s job gain numbers were reasonably solid in the face of renewed health concerns,” ESD economist Paul Turek said in a statement. “But the uncertainty around the Delta variant is likely to result in an uneven labor market recovery.”

Even without the disruptions associated with coronavirus, August is traditionally a soft month for job growth, said Employment Security Department labor economist Ajsa Suljic. Because the official employment report samples the first twelve days of the month, seasonal job growth in late August won’t be shown until September’s analysis is released next month.

Statewide, Washington has recovered much of the job loss seen when the country tumbled into the COVID recession in March of last year. Looking more closely at the data, a tale of two states emerges: western Washington, where recovery has been sluggish, and eastern Washington, where recovery has been strong.

“We entered all together in this recession,” Suljic said. “But in eastern Washington, because of the base of industries, we pulled forward and ahead in job recovery.”

From August 2020 to August of this year, the Spokane metro area’s employment grew by 5.5 percent, or 31,100 new jobs.

“Those are all significant numbers,” Suljic said. “And when I compare those numbers, the losses from March [and] April last year were significant…we’re on the right track for many of these industries gaining back what they lost from COVID.”

Jobless rates in Spokane, Stevens and Whitman counties this summer trended at or below pre-pandemic averages. Rates in Spokane County bottomed out at 4.2 percent in July – its lowest showing since November 1999, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That historically low rate helps explain why so many “help wanted” signs still appear in the windows of Spokane businesses, said Ryan Herzog, an associate professor of economics at Gonzaga University.

“For the people in Spokane that are trying to find labor, it’s hard to come by,” Herzog said. “There’s not people sitting there that can’t find child care that are living off the extra pandemic assistance programs that, I think, are the narratives we’re hearing. It’s just a tight labor market. It was a tight labor market before the pandemic, it’s an even tighter labor market now.”

The unemployment rate in Pend Oreille county rose slightly in August, and Lincoln County has been trending above pre-pandemic levels all year. Ferry County’s rate has been rising since May. At eight percent, its August rate was the highest in Washington.

As Washington emerges from the immediate economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, longer-term issues and questions linger. Answering those questions will determine what the new normal of employment activity and trends looks like. Many employers responded to labor shortages by offering higher starting wages. But during the pandemic, many people across the country re-evaluated what they want from a job, and that will make predicting the future difficult.

“There’s always two sides to a story,” Suljic said. “There are structural changes that are happening in the business and workforce. You know, people are asking ‘How can I support my family?’ ‘Is it worth me going back to work and pay 2,000 dollars for child care?’ ‘What if I have low or no benefits?’ Companies are wondering, ‘Can I keep my doors open if I can’t find a qualified workforce?’ All these factors play many different roles on how much the work force can be engaged. And COVID really amplified that.”

Brandon Hollingsworth is your All Things Considered host. He has served public radio audiences for fifteen years, primarily in reporting, hosting and interviewing. His previous ports-of-call were WUOT-FM in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Alabama Public Radio. His work has been heard nationally on Morning Edition, All Things Considered, Here and Now and NPR’s top-of-the-hour newscasts.