Unemployment rate at record low
Okanogan County’s economic picture shows continued improvement in the wake of COVID-19 setbacks, with unemployment rates dropping through October this year, according to recently released state employment figures.
Okanogan County’s unemployment rate for the month of October was 4.3%, the lowest rate for that month in more than 30 years and a sign that the county is continuing to rebound from the economic damage caused by the pandemic.
“This is an extremely low unemployment rate for the month of October,” said Don Meseck, a regional labor economist for the Washington Employment Security Department. “In fact, this 4.3% unemployment rate is the lowest rate for October in Okanogan County since data began to be recorded electronically in 1990 – good economic news,” Meseck said.
The October unemployment rate of 4.3% compares to 5.9% in October 2020 – when the county was struggling with layoffs and business closures – and 4.6% in October 2019, prior to the pandemic. State data on county jobs numbers also show an encouraging trend, Meseck said in his analysis of Okanogan County’s economy. “Between October 2020 and October 2021, total nonfarm employment climbed by 690 (5.7%) from 12,170 jobs last October to 12,860 in October 2021 – clearly, another step in the right direction for the local economy.”
The employment outlook is good even in comparison to the pre-pandemic economy, Meseck said. “On the plus-side, total nonfarm employment countywide this October was … 20 jobs (0.2%) greater than the 12,840 jobs tallied in October 2019,” Meseck said. These statistics “are somewhat encouraging since they indicate that the number of nonfarm jobs in Okanogan County has recently returned to the pre-COVID job level of October 2019.”
State employment statistics indicate that “three industries appear to be leading the pack in terms of hiring in Okanogan County,” Meseck said. Retail trade, leisure and hospitality, and state and local government and education each added more than 100 jobs between October 2020 and October 2021, he said.
All three industries are essential to the Methow Valley economy and are among the largest employers in the valley. Leisure and hospitality (hotels, eating and drinking places and amusement and recreation services) saw the largest growth in jobs in the county, increasing from 1,810 in October 2020 to 1,940 in October 2021.
In fact, Meseck noted, leisure and hospitality employment was 50 jobs and 3.6% greater this October than October 2019. “Hence, it is safe to say that leisure and hospitality employment, which is heavily related to tourism, has bounced back to the pre-COVID-related levels of 2019.”
The retail trade sector in Okanogan County lost jobs in both 2019 and 2020, and was struggling even before COVID-19-related layoffs last year, Meseck said. However, between October 2020 and October this year, retail trade employment grew by 7.2%, or 130 jobs.
Employment in state and local education contracted for 13 months (April 2020 through April 2021) before expanding from May through October this year. Education added 100 jobs, increasing from 1,520 to 1,620 countywide, between October of last year and this year, Meseck said.
“With more students back in the classroom, and relatively fewer online classes, state and local government education has been on the rise – locally and statewide,” he said.
Shrinking labor force
All this good economic news, however, “must be tempered with the fact that Okanogan County’s labor force was considerably smaller in October 2021 than in October 2019,” Meseck said.
The county’s Civilian Labor Force in October this year was 20,007 residents, which was 850 less than the 20,857 residents in the pre-COVID labor force in October 2019. (The Civilian Labor Force is defined by the U.S. Census Bureau as people over 16, who are not in the military or an institution, who are employed or unemployed.)
“There are probably several anecdotal factors, likely COVID-19-related, for the shrinking labor force in Okanogan County, which occurred up through August 2021,” Meseck said. These factors likely include more residents, especially baby boomers, retiring; childcare issues, especially in two-parent households, that may cause one parent to stay home to care for children; residents returning to full-time school or college; and residents becoming “discouraged workers” and dropping out of the labor force.
The state employment data shows longer term trends in employment, including a drop in the number of agricultural jobs in Okanogan County by almost 25% between 2010 and 2020. The share of agricultural jobs, as part of the county’s overall employment, decreased by 5.8 percentage points in that 10-year period (from 32.1% to 26.3%).
On the other hand, the agricultural payroll showed an increase in wage growth in the agricultural job sector from $82.3 million in 2010 to $115.7 million in 2020, a 40.5% increase. But the share of agricultural wages, compared to total job payroll in the county, was virtually stable, comprising 18.7% in 2010 and 18.5% in 2020.
These agricultural employment trends “showed that the agricultural industry has become less influential in Okanogan County’s economy” when compared to total employment, Meseck said in his economic analysis.
“Certainly agriculture is still a seasonal industry in Okanogan County, but anecdotal evidence indicates that more agricultural workers are being hired into full-time year-round positions, with relatively fewer hires into part-time/seasonal positions,” Meseck said. “Plus, automation in the picking, packing and sorting of fresh fruit and vegetables appears to have reduced the need for labor.”
Those factors, Meseck said, may account for why the share of agricultural jobs in the county’s overall employment has dropped, while the share of wages paid to agricultural workers remains almost unchanged.
The data provided by the state Employment Security Department is not seasonally adjusted, meaning the statistics have not been adjusted to remove effects of seasonal patterns, such as construction, tourism and holiday retail sales.