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Jobless rate dips slighlty in May, but summer recovery 'a question mark'

Jobless rate dips slighlty in May, but summer recovery 'a question mark'

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Cowlitz County’s unemployment rate decreased slightly in May, and economists expect the downward trend in joblessness to continue into June.

But a recent rise in COVID-19 cases and the public’s lax response to suggested safety precautions could complicate economic recovery this summer, said Southwest Washington regional economist Scott Bailey.

“It still seems like too many people are not wearing masks, not doing social distancing and not washing their hands,” Bailey said.

According to Bailey’s May unemployment report, Cowlitz County’s unemployment rate dropped slightly to 15.5% in May from 16.4% in April.

That compares to a 6.1% unemployment rate in May 2019.

Overall employment rose by 1,800 jobs to 37,000, according to the report. Almost one-third of the jobs lost in April came back, Bailey wrote in the report.

The construction industry saw the largest rebound of jobs, regaining 500 of the 800 jobs lost in April. Trade, transportation and utilities; retail; education and health services; and leisure and hospitality all reported a boost to employment as well.

The May numbers likely reflect economic improvements gleaned from the Phase 2 reopening in the county, as well as growing customer confidence, Bailey said.

“The public is adjusting and saying, ‘I’m going to venture out,’ versus, ‘I’m going to hide in my closet,’” Bailey said.

Still, employment is down about 9.1% compared to last year. And joblessness remains near the highs of the 1982-era recession. (April’s rate was the highest recorded since the 16.7% recorded in February 1983.)

“The report shows a trend similar in Cowlitz County as to the state and nation, in the sense that there was a little bit of a bounce back in employment. It’s still high unemployment, and it’s still a large employment loss over the year,” Bailey said.

Based on initial data from weekly unemployment claims, Bailey expects another decrease in joblessness in June.

“But July becomes a question mark,” he said.

Three factors will determine the arc of recovery into the summer:

  • What the virus is doing, in terms of case count.
  • How people behave.
  • What policy legislators enact to help.

As of Tuesday, the rising case count in the county and the state were “not encouraging,” Bailey said.

Cowlitz County health officials reported 20 new cases since the weekend. That’s a 15% rise in cases.

Bailey said the theory that (the virus) would take the summer off seems unlikely.

And many people still aren’t wearing face masks in public despite recommendations from the Center for Disease Control to do so. (That will likely change soon with a new statewide requirement that all people wear facial coverings in public settings, announced Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee.)

Policy, the last factor for recovery, is “still and open question at this point,” Bailey said. Most of the temporary measures in place nationally are set to expire in July.

“It’s really cautious going forward in terms of recovery.”

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