Unemployment report shows improvement, but still behind 2019

POST-TRIBUNE | DEC 04, 2020 AT 6:53 AM

Prospective employees are interviewed one-on-one by current employees during the Hard Rock Casino Northern Indiana hiring event at Majestic Star Casino in Gary on Tuesday, November 17, 2020. (Kyle Telechan / Post-Tribune)

The Region’s unemployment rate dropped by 1.5 points to 6.3% in October, showing signs of an improving economy in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, but it still lags behind the same month last year, in pre-COVID-19 times, and the state overall.

The unemployment rate for the Gary metropolitan area, which includes Lake and Porter counties, was 7.8% in September and 3.3% in October 2019, according to the monthly report by Indiana Department of Workforce Development, which prepares the report in conjunction with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The state’s unemployment rate in October was 5.0%, down from 6.3% in September, but higher than the 3.2% in October 2019.

“The state overall has improved a lot. The Region has always lagged behind,” said Shaun Sahlhoff, planning and project development associate with the Center of Workforce Innovations.

He said trade, transportation and utilities were bright spots, while the leisure and hospitality industry continues to suffer.

He said the improvement in transportation and utilities makes sense. “With the election, postal workers were working and there is an increase in shipping for the holidays. There is always a need for utilities,” Sahlhoff said.

The number of people employed in retail increased slightly compared to September, and should continue to go up in November, also due to the holidays, Sahlhoff said.

“Those numbers fall of the cliff after December, though,” he said.

Employment in the leisure and hospitality fields didn’t fare much better in October than the previous month, and probably won’t improve in November, either, with the number of COVID-19 cases rising, causing more people to eat at home and shutting down company holiday parties, he said.

“This could be our vulnerable spot,” said Linda Woloshansky, president and CEO of Center of workforce Innovations.

“I hope the food and beverage area will be able to have a steady course as things move forward in the next several months, that they’re able to withstand this (pandemic),” she said.

While the City of Gary’s unemployment rate is still high compared to the overall region, at 14.3% in October, it’s also seeing some improvement compared to the 15.9% in September during the virus-related recession. In October 2019, Gary’s unemployment rate was 6.5%.

Woloshansky attributes the improved jobs outlook to the leadership of Mayor Jerome Prince and the knowledge that there are jobs available.

She cited movement at the Gary-Chicago International Airport, the fact that Spectacle Entertainment has begun the process of hiring an additional 800 employees for its Hard Rock Casino that is expected to open in the spring and the city’s partnership with Akyumen Industries to manufacture smart phones and tablets in Gary as some examples of job opportunities.

On a Region-wide level, Woloshansky pointed to new developments going into Ameriplex at the Crossroads in Merrillville and a spec building that just sold in Valparaiso.

“I think we’re in a good place with a lot of potential for next year,” she said. “There are jobs.”

Sahlhoff gave some credit for the improving economy, and the fact that the state is doing better than the national average, which had a 6.9% unemployment rate in October, to the state government.

“Overall, the state has done a very good job in terms of providing help and services to businesses,” Sahlhoff said.

He pointed to the state’s Small Business Restart grant, which he said provides up to $50,000 to small businesses to help pay operating expenses, rent and lease payments.

While the latest unemployment report provides a glimmer of hope for the future, the state’s Department of Workforce Development said the number of residents being paid jobless benefits is still much higher than before the coronavirus-caused recession, draining the state’s unemployment fund that stood at nearly $1 billion before earlier this year.

The department said some 87,000 people were receiving jobless benefits as of the end of October, nearly 5-1/2 times more than a year ago, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

And Sahlhoff noted that the size of the labor force has been decreasing as some individuals become discouraged and stop looking for a job or have underlying health issues.

“This issue could last months or well into next year. What happens to the economy when people are not employed for the long-term and not getting benefits,” Sahlhoff said.

Karen Caffarini is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.
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