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Labor releases data on early, pre-COVID numbers

Idaho Department of Labor has just released some data that gives us a good idea of how North Central Idaho was doing before the coronavirus started to cause an economic pandemic, according to Kathryn Tacke, Regional Economist.

Job statistics of people on payrolls of employers in North Central Idaho reveal a long trend of disappointing job growth.

The region added a few jobs between December 2018 and December 2019, but its growth was very slow compared to the rest of the state and most of the U.S. The region's payroll jobs grew sluggishly between December 2014 and December 2019.

Over the last five years, job gains only slightly exceeded job losses. Job gains came from the health care sector, the growth of Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories in Lewiston, and a construction boom. Job losses caused by problems in the region's retail sector and the "Trump slump" that hurt the sales of ammunition manufactures after the election in 2016. A drag on economic growth in Latah County was a drop in enrollment at the University of Idaho, which is a major driver of retail and service employment in the county, and the university's recent job cuts due to financial problems.

The "metal supercluster" in manufacturing includes fabricated metal- such as machine shops and ammunition and firearms manufacturing; equipment makers (the largest is Schweitzer Engineering Laboratories); and boat and trailer builders.

Lewis County was the fastest-growing county last year and over the five years between December 2014 and 2019, while Clearwater County was the only county to experience job losses. Latah County's job growth was disappointing last year, but the second strongest in the region over the five-year period. However, you should remember its growth was less than 1 percent a year, on average, which can only be described as slow. The table below provides more information and the Excel file's worksheet for each county provides detail by industrial sector.

Employed and unemployed irsidents in February-Before the Coronavirus economic crisis

The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate in February was at a record low of 2.5 percent. That was lower than the state's 2.7 percent and considerably below the nation's 3.5 percent, which is at a 50-year low.

Clearwater County's 4.9 percent rate ranked second highest among Idaho's 44 counties; Shoshone County's rate of 5.0 percent was the highest. Although Clearwater County's rate was high relative to other Idaho counties, it was half of its average rate over the last 40 years.

Idaho, Latah, Nez Perce, and its neighboring county in Washington, Asotin, all had record low rates in February. Lewis County's seasonally adjusted rate was only half a percentage point of its record low.

The lag in economic statistics during an economic turning point

The low unemployment rates in February represent conditions well before the coronavirus began to affect economic conditions in the region. Labor force statistics about employed and unemployed residents are updated once a month for the month before. So, the March unemployment rates will be released on the third Friday of April. It's also important to know that labor force statistics are actually not for an entire month, they are about employment and unemployment in the week containing the 12th of the month. So, the March rates will be for the week of Sunday, March 8, to Saturday, March 14. Since the coronavirus-caused job losses just started occurring in Idaho that week, and accelerated sharply over the next weeks in March. We don't really have a good picture of the unemployment caused by the coronavirus economic crisis until we get April statistics in May.

There always is a lag involved with economic data. They take time to gather-whether through surveys (such as the Current Population Survey, a monthly survey of American households about employment and unemployment that produced U.S. labor force statistics and also is used as one of elements in state, county, and metro area statistics); administrative records (such as unemployment insurance data and reports on the employment by industry that comes from quarterly unemployment insurance reports filed by almost all employers); or other data sources. Once data is gathered, it must be analyzed and reported, which also takes of the time.

Most of the time when statistic-providing agencies release information about the week, the month, the quarter, or even the year before, it doesn't seem old and stale, because conditions aren't changing that rapidly. But in times like these, when economic conditions are changing rapidly and the economy is going through a turning point from growth to downturn, we become aware that the statistics are artifacts of the past, not a reflection of current conditions.

At the Idaho Department of Labor, the economists and statisticians are struggling to get and share information about what's actually going on. We intend to do everything we can do to keep Idahoans well-informed about economic conditions-despite the lack of statistics that reflect current conditions.

Unemployment claims soar as the Coronavirus tsunami begins to take its toll

Across the U.S., unemployment insurance claims surged in the third week of March. Friday's Wall Street Journal said, "A record 3.28 million workers applied for unemployment benefits last week as the new coronavirus hit the U.S. economy, marking an abrupt end to the nation's historic, decade-long run of job growth. The number of Americans filing for claims was nearly five times the previous record high. The surge was for the week ended March 21 and could rise further." The graph below is from that article. The thin red line on the far right is the level in the week ending March 21. You can see how it towers above the previous record high for a week set during the "great recession" that began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009.

The number of Idahoans filing new claims for unemployment insurance in the week ending March 21 grew twelve-fold from 1,031 the week ending March 14 to 13,341 in the week ending March 21. That was the largest one-week increase in the history of Idaho's unemployment program.

The number of people filing unemployment insurance claims in North Central Idaho jumped from 93 in the week ending March 14 to 368 in the following week, the week ending March 21.

Data is not yet available for last week, but based on how much claims activity increased on the Monday, March 23, and continued at a strong pace throughout that week and into today, we know that the week ending March 21 was just the beginning of the tsunami.

The number of people filing unemployment insurance claims are a large segment of people that are unemployed, but there are a significant number of unemployed people who do not file unemployment insurance claims for a variety of reasons. Groups that normally aren't eligible for unemployment insurance and therefore don't file include the self-employed whose businesses are shut down; work-study students who earn dollars working on university and college campuses, people who are paid solely by commission, or people without enough earnings to qualify for unemployment insurance. People who are entering the labor force for the first time or re-entering the labor force after being out of work and haven't found work yet also are considered unemployed for the unemployment rate also do not file unemployment insurance claims. Last week, the president signed a bill that changed the rules a bit for some of these groups that will allow some people in the categories mentioned above as not normally eligible for unemployment insurance benefits to receive them during this coronavirus crisis.

In addition to the people who've lost jobs, there are many people who've had significant drops in their hours of work, which means less income for them and their families, and also many business owners have seen their incomes fall precipitately in the last three weeks.

The magnitude of the job and income loss in the first three weeks of the crisis is unprecedented. When recessions normally start, the job loss is considered rapid as it occurs over several months, while this coronavirus crisis caused huge job losses in just three weeks.

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