Southern Utah mirrors overall state trend of lower unemployment numbers compared to much of U.S.

ST. GEORGE — The number of new unemployment claims in Utah dropped during the week of Nov. 22-28, according to a report released on Dec. 3 by the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Graph showing the weekly number of weekly new claims from March through November 2020 | Courtesy of the Utah Department of Workforce Services, St. George News | Click to enlarge

New claims for traditional benefits decreased from 3,077 to 2,460, a 20.1% drop. Pandemic unemployment claims also fell from 709 to 532, a change of 25%.

“While we did see a marked decrease in the number of new unemployment claims for the week, this may be
artificially low as a result of the Thanksgiving holiday,” Kevin Burt, Unemployment Insurance Division director for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said in a press release.

Though the previous week did see a slight rise – and the weeks after the holiday remain to be seen – the long-term trend in Washington and Iron counties is down. However, Burt said the need for additional benefits remains, as those provided by the CARES Act are set to expire on Dec. 26, which includes pandemic unemployment for the self-employed and the 13-week extended unemployment.

Lecia Langston, regional economist for the state Department of Workforce Services, told St. George News that it was important to note the nuances of this peculiar recession.

“Technically, we are in a recession,” Langston said, “but traditionally, recessions are driven by the business cycle, not viruses. This is a different ball game.”

While jobs numbers are rebounding, they still aren’t quite where they were before March, and the number of first-time applicants continues to grow, as industries like leisure and hospitality, retail, and healthcare and social assistance bear the brunt of the pandemic’s effects upon the economy.

Graph of Washington County’s unemployment rate. Shaded areas indicate a period of recession. | Courtesy of the Federal Bank of St. Louis, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services, said that any industry in which personal interaction is high has been “hit hard.”

“Many rural areas rely heavily upon tourism,” he said, “which fuels the leisure and hospitality industry,”

It may be instructive to compare Utah with Nevada, whose economy is roughly the same size.

Knold said that, by the end of April, Utah had 140,000 new unemployment applications. Nevada, by contrast, had 440,000. Today, Utah has the fourth lowest unemployment rate (4.1%), while Nevada has the second highest (12%).

That bodes well for the state at large, but Washington County’s hospitality sector is still suffering.

“That’s the lifeblood of the economy in Southern Utah,” Knold added. “Many rural areas rely heavily upon tourism, which fuels the leisure and hospitality industry.”

Since March, Washington County has seen 2,033 unemployment applications from leisure and hospitality workers (16.6% of total applications), 1,575 from retail trade (12.8%) and 1,303 from healthcare and social assistance (10.6%).

Graph of Iron County’s unemployment rate. Shaded areas indicate a period of recession. | Courtesy of the Federal Bank of St. Louis, St. George News | Click to enlarge

Similarly, Iron County saw 621 unemployment applications from leisure and hospitality workers (19.4% of total applications), 328 from retail trade (10.3%) and 316 from healthcare and social assistance (9.9%).

Overall, Washington County’s unemployment rate has dropped to 4.1% since April, while Iron County hit 3.5%, according to the most recent reports.

The city of St. George has tried to mitigate the effects of COVID-19 on the local economy, especially in leisure and recreation.

“Leisure and recreation were definitely our hardest hit sectors,” said David Cordero, communications manager for the city. “We had to lay off a lot of part-timers who staffed events and recreational facilities. Events were canceled, and facilities were closed. They didn’t have anything to do. We brought most of them back, though, as restrictions eased up.”

Due to the city’s fiscal approach, Cordero said that they didn’t lay off or furlough any full-time employees.

“We’ve been very conservative in what’s in the budget,” he said. “We’ve also been very conservative about our projected revenues. So we’re in a good spot.”

Black Friday may have given a glimpse of things to come, as well as insight into the struggles faced by retail stores – and consequently their employees. Forbes reported that in-store visits declined by 52%, while online sales jumped 22% to $9 billion.

This is good news for online retailers like Amazon but not so good for locally owned stores.

Two sectors that went relatively unscathed in the state are construction and finance. While finance is concentrated in larger urban areas, St. George’s construction companies stayed busy, adding 947 jobs in June, an 11.9% increase from the previous year.

“There were a lot of construction contracts already in place,” Langston said. “Their working conditions don’t make them particularly vulnerable to transmission of COVID-19, so they were able to continue working.”

Besides the construction sector, transportation, manufacturing, healthcare and education have all seen gains in Washington County since April. Iron County saw similar growth in the same job categories.

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2020, all rights reserved.

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