The jobless rate swings upward

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In the final three months of 2020, Monroe County’s jobless rate experienced a roller-coaster ride, finishing the year just below 7 percent, the latest monthly report from the state Labor Department shows.

After a steady decline since July, the rate in October climbed to 6.9 percent, up from 6.6 percent in September. Then in November, it fell to 6 percent, before returning to 6.9 percent in December. Throughout the fourth quarter, the monthly rate remained more than 50 percent higher than the comparable month a year earlier, before the coronavirus pandemic struck.

Monroe County’s unemployment rate during the pandemic has consistently been the highest among the six counties in the Rochester region. In December, the rates elsewhere in the region were Livingston County, 5.5 percent; Ontario County, 5.5 percent; Orleans County, 6.4 percent; Wayne County, 5.5 percent; and Yates County, 5 percent. For the region as a whole, the rate was 6.5 percent, up from 4.4 percent a year earlier. 

The Rochester area’s December jobless rate compares favorably to those for New York City (11 percent) and Buffalo-Niagara Falls (7.5 percent). Elsewhere in Upstate New York, the Albany region (5.3 percent) and Syracuse (6.4 percent) posted lower rates.

Statewide, the October unemployment rate was 8.1 percent, compared with 3.7 percent a year ago; nationwide, the rate was 6.5 percent, versus 3.4 percent in December 2019.

The state 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.

While COVID-19 continues to weigh heavily on the regional economy, Monroe County’s unemployment rate has improved markedly since peaking at 15 percent in April, when New York’s lockdown orders were in full force. The Rochester metro rate that month was 14.9 percent. The county and metro jobless rates did not retreat from double digits until August.

Unemployment is a key measure of the pandemic’s economic toll, but not the only one. Data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show total nonfarm employment in the Rochester region plunged nearly 20 percent in April and in December remained 10 percent lower than a year earlier.

The pandemic also has caused contraction in the labor force. That means in addition to those classified as unemployed are many others who no longer are looking for work.

On Thursday, the federal government reported that U.S. gross domestic product in the fourth quarter grew 4 percent. For the year, however, the nation’s economy contracted 3.5 percent, the first decline since the 2008 financial crisis and the largest since the 1946 deceleration from World War II.

While local COVID numbers have been trending downward this month after surging in late 2020, the pandemic continues to loom large in the economic outlook here and elsewhere. The $900 billion federal stimulus package signed into law in late December and the ramping up of the vaccination effort are reasons for optimism, say economic forecasters, but concern about the spread of COVID variants clouds the global picture. 

Paul Ericson is Rochester Beacon executive editor.

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