People out of work because of the COVID pandemic have a new worry, with the extra $600 weekly federal benefit set to expire this week unless Congress reauthorizes the program.
Because so many jobs in the Methow Valley and Okanogan County are in leisure and hospitality, workers here were especially hard-hit by the COVID pandemic. They’ve also been slower to recover.
With tourists visiting the Methow in large numbers, some jobs are returning. But restaurants are still restricted to 50% capacity — meaning fewer workers and lower tips — and many eateries are still closed.
Okanogan County’s unemployment rate in May was the highest since the state started keeping electronic records in 1990, said Don Meseck, a regional labor economist with the state Employment Security Department (ESD).
Under the statewide stay-home order, Okanogan County lost almost 69% of all leisure and hospitality jobs (comparing May 2019 to 2020), whereas statewide, the loss was 45.5%, Meseck said. Because it takes time to conduct the detailed county analysis, the most recent numbers are from May. The leisure and hospitality sector includes not only hotels and restaurants, but also recreation such as golf courses.
The ESD has released statewide unemployment numbers for June, which show the unemployment rate in the county at 9.4%. In May, it was 13.6% – more than twice the rate from May 2019, Meseck said.
The number of people out of work in the county increased by almost 106% from May of 2019 to 2020. That number takes into account the size of the labor force, which dropped by 1,500 from last May to this May, Meseck said.
Layoffs also hit Okanogan County later than in other parts of the state, he said. There was a 9% job loss in April, and it climbed further — to 12% — in May.
The ESD has been flooded by an unprecedented number of unemployment claims and, while many people have been getting checks, some claims are still being processed or verified. Some people are still waiting for their first unemployment check — some as long as 13 weeks, according to client advocates at Room One, the social-service provider in Twisp.
As of Tuesday (July 28), Congress was still deadlocked on the supplemental unemployment benefit. Democrats are pushing to continue the $600 benefit. Republicans have proposed reducing the federal supplement to $200 a week or capping total benefits at 70% of wages, arguing that if people earn more on unemployment than on the job, they’ll have no incentive to go back to work.