Unemployment claims return to pre-pandemic levels

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Since the beginning of the year, claims for unemployment insurance have trended down in Whatcom County and Washington state. But only until this summer, as the state’s economy reopens, have they returned to levels seen before the pandemic.

Anneliese Vance-Sherman, Washington’s Employment Security Department (ESD) regional labor economist, said looking at continued unemployment benefits gives a better idea of the labor market recovery and how many people are returning to work.

According to ESD, Whatcom County has fewer than 8,000 people on continued unemployment benefits, while at the peak of the three-month pandemic-induced recession last year, the county had a total 22,880 people on unemployment benefits.

A similar rebound has been seen statewide as well, Vance-Sherman said. “Whatcom County has been following the statewide pattern very closely,” she said.

The state’s unemployment rate last month was 5.2 percent, according to the ESD’s monthly labor market review. The county’s unemployment rate was 5.4 percent, when it was 11.5 percent a year before.

Initial claims, which show the number of layoffs happening in the market, have dipped as well.

During the week of July 11 to July 17, 122 initial claims were filed in the county and 191 were filed the week before. The second week in June was the only week to record fewer claims since February 2020. In the first week of 2021, the ESD saw 854 claims filed in the county, while the most claims filed in one week was 6,292 in the week ending March 28, 2020.

Statewide, the numbers trend similarly.

In the week of July 17, 5,061 claims were filed in the state, similar to the week before. The state hasn’t seen such low numbers since February 2020.

Throughout the pandemic, the ESD has seen a correlation between restrictions and claims filed. Claims hit record numbers in Washington when the state shutdown over a year ago, with one week in March 2020 totaling over 180,000 claims.

Claims slowly decreased into the summer, but always remained at least twice the number filed in the corresponding weeks of the prior year. In the fall, claims increased following governor Jay Inslee’s announcement of tighter restrictions, but since the state fully reopened June 30, initial claims are back to normal.

“By that metric, we’re doing well,” Vance-Sherman said. “But when talking about initial claims, we’re talking about layoffs.”

From June 2020 to June 2021, the state gained an estimated 197,000 jobs, according to the review. The private sector gained 181,600, while the public sector gained an estimated 15,400 jobs.

While the state may be reopened and the data shows the job market is rebounding, Vance-Sherman warned there are still a lot of unknowns. “I’m waiting for the October report, which will really show how well we’ve recovered,” she said.

Vance-Sherman said childcare is a big issue for former workers considering returning to their jobs. With school expected to return to normal in the fall, more people may return to work full-time. By then, the market will be more stable and predictable, she said in a phone interview that the distant cries of child briefly interrupted.

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