Unemployment still high, but some industries see job growth

The Washington State Employment Security Department reports that the unemployment rate continues to be high, but certain industries have begun to see job growth when compared to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The latest unemployment figures, which are for June, shows that the rate in Island County is estimated to be at 9.2 percent, more than twice the unemployment rate last year.

“What we saw was a rapid increase to the unemployment rate and the highest nationally since the Great Depression,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist for Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island counties.

While Vance-Sherman said that it is common for unemployment to rise quickly going into a recession, normally the rate does not increase rapidly over the course of a month, which is what happened because of COVID-19. One of the challenges that economists face is that numbers are usually a month behind.

“The story that’s unfolded over the past several months is one of a very rapidly moving, rapidly evolving situation,” she said. “One thing that struck me at the beginning is that every industry is being impacted and continues to be.”

She explained that every industry is interwoven. Fewer airplane travelers, for example, resulted in a decrease in airplane manufacturing. Similarly, a reduction in hotel services causes a decrease in restaurant sales and certain types of retail.

Jobs in certain retail sectors, such as grocery stores, have started to make a comeback, according to the data. Whidbey Island has seen a 3 percent growth in retail employment.

Vance-Sherman said uncertainty in regulations and guidelines were some of causes of job loss in retail sectors. As businesses learn to adapt to the situation by installing things like Plexiglas shields, she expects to see many of those jobs return.

“There’s a little more certainty and ability to navigate,” she said.

Some industries may never fully recover. She expects to see an increase in automation for some jobs. On top of the lower cost, she said the risk of face-to-face human interactions may be one of the driving factors.

She said restaurants will likely continue to struggle because of their inability to operate at full capacity.

“Restaurants that were hit extremely hard already have thin profit margins,” she said.

The hospitality sector has been one of the hardest hit industries for unemployment. For Island County, the job loss has been estimated at 34 percent compared to last year for the month of June. However, Island County has not been hit as hard as the San Juan Islands, which have seen a 70 percent decrease in employment for the same industry.

Vance-Sherman said the military institutions on the island have likely mitigated some of the damage.

“Island County has a stabilizing force in the military.” She said. “You have a large resident population that is still operating and dependent on local services.”