Unemployment rate turns higher again

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After declining steadily since July, Monroe County’s unemployment rate in October rose to 6.9 percent, up from 6.6 percent in September, the latest monthly report from the state Labor Department shows. In October 2019, the county’s jobless rate was 4 percent.

Among the six counties in the Rochester region, Monroe County’s unemployment rate was the highest. The rates elsewhere in the region were Livingston County, 4.9 percent; Ontario County, 5.2 percent; Orleans County, 6 percent; Wayne County, 5.5 percent; and Yates County, 4.5 percent.

The Rochester metro jobless rate was 6.4 percent, compared with 6.1 percent in September and 3.9 percent a year earlier.

Statewide, the October unemployment rate was 9.2 percent, versus 3.7 percent a year ago; nationwide, the rate was 6.6 percent, up from 3.3 percent in October 2019.

The Labor Department calculates local area unemployment rates in part using the results of the Current Population Survey, which contacts approximately 3,100 households in New York each month. The data are preliminary.

Monroe County’s unemployment rate during the coronavirus pandemic peaked at 15 percent in April, when New York’s lockdown orders were in full force. The Rochester metro rate that month—14.9 percent—also was the highest since COVID-19 arrived here.

The county and metro jobless rates stayed in the double digits through July, when they were 13.7 percent and 12.9 percent, respectively, and then began a downward trend. However, they have remained persistently higher than year-ago levels, underscoring the pandemic’s impact on the local economy.

Employment in metropolitan Rochester

That toll also is evident in employment numbers. Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show total nonfarm employment in the Rochester region plummeted in April, falling 19 percent compared with April 2019. The metro area since then has regained some lost ground, but employment in October remained 10 percent lower than a year earlier.

The labor force also has shrunk since the pandemic hit in March, so in addition to the ranks of the unemployed are many others who have given up looking for work.

Job losses have been concentrated among lower-wage workers, research shows. Payroll data from Paychex and Intuit collected by Opportunity Insights, a nonprofit economy tracker at Harvard University, show that from Jan. 1 to Sept. 30, employment rates among Monroe County workers in the bottom wage group—those earning less than $27,000 a year—decreased by 17.3 percent (not seasonally adjusted). By contrast, the employment rate for middle-wage earners—those making $27,000 to $60,000—declined only 4.6 percent. And in the high-wage group of individuals earning more than $60,000 a year, the rate actually increased slightly (0.6 percent).

Impact on wage groups

Higher-income employees tend to be in jobs that have successfully pivoted to remote work during the pandemic. The lower end of the income scale has more workers in retail and other industries requiring in-person sales and customer service—positions hit hard during the spring lockdown and increasingly vulnerable now with the surge of coronavirus cases and parts of the region moving into orange and possibly red zones under the state’s micro-cluster COVID strategy.

On Monday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo warned that rising levels of infections and hospitalizations could prompt him in some regions to reinstate the New York on PAUSE order that shut down all non-essential businesses.

Another sign of possible deterioration in the local economy: monthly sales tax collections in October fell 18.7 percent in Monroe County and 13.5 percent regionwide, after sizable gains in September.

Statewide, sales tax revenue in October declined 5.2 percent. State Comptroller Thomas DiNapoli said overall local government collections in 2020 through October were down nearly $1.6 billion, or 10.4 percent, compared with the same period in 2019.

Nationally, more economic clouds are on the near horizon. Two measures enacted as part of the CARES Act coronavirus relief bill are slated to expire at the end of this month. Also scheduled to end on Dec. 31 is federally mandated paid sick and family leave enacted in March. The Paycheck Protection Program that helped small businesses keep employees on their payrolls ended several months ago.

Democrats and Republicans on Capitol Hill remain far apart in negotiations on passing a new coronavirus aid package.

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

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