EVERETT — One year removed from near historic lows in the local unemployment rate, a jobless mark of 6.2% for the month of February feels almost like a gift.
By the time the 2.8% rate of February 2020 was released in late March, the economy was on the brink of a spiral. Just two months later, with pandemic lockdowns shuttering much of the economy, the county’s unemployment rate reached 19.3%, one of the highest in the state and almost double that of the Great Recession a decade earlier.
The months since have been a gradual and uneven economic road toward recovery.
“We have been on quite a journey,” state economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman said.
Snohomish County’s 6.2% unemployment rate is comparable to the state and U.S. marks of 6.4% and 6.2%, respectively.
Neighboring King County has 5.3% unemployment and Skagit County is at 7.7%, according to data from the state Employment Security Department. The final numbers could change slightly when adjusted for predictable seasonal variation.
Vance-Sherman said the current rate feels a bit more like normal, but after a year full of somersaults, she said the percentages don’t tell the full story.
Nearly 28,000 locals remain unemployed and in search of work, up from just over 12,000 a year ago.
More than 1,200 people in the county filed new unemployment claims during one mid-March week. That’s a substantial decrease from the 13,700 new claims during the same week in 2020 at the onset of the pandemic, but well above the 439 claims made during the same week in 2019.
“The problem presented itself overnight, but it took weeks for the full impact to be felt,” said Matt Smith, director of economic development at Economic Alliance Snohomish County. “Things get bad over time, things get better over time.”
The Economic Alliance aims to boost job and economic growth by creating public-private partnerships between the business community, local leaders and workforce groups.
Smith said COVID-19 limitations have proven less than ideal to creating networks in the county, but that hasn’t stopped the alliance’s work. In 2020, the nonprofit distributed three rounds of small business grants with funding from Snohomish County and the state Department of Commerce.
The assistance has expanded statewide conversations about assisting entrepreneurs of all shapes and sizes.
“What we’ve learned through the last few months is small firms are a significantly important part of the economic ecosystem and they tend to be overlooked,” Smith said. “Just because you want to be supportive of small businesses, they may not know that you’re out there or how to ask for help. … How do you reach out to the guy who is working out of his garage with three employees and let him know there are programs out there that he could benefit from?”
In March, the U.S. economy reported adding 916,000 jobs, but it remains more than 8 million jobs short of the number before the pandemic erupted.
Over the year, 21,000 jobs have vanished in Snohomish County, including more than 10,000 in the manufacturing sector that comprises aerospace parts and production.
Smith said manufacturing companies creating products for a diverse range of industries, not just aviation, have found the most success in the uncertainty.
“The proof is now out there that there is some value in not being over-reliant on a single industry,” he said. “This is nothing new, this is Economics 101 from decades ago. It’s good to have a lot of business.”
Down 4,800 jobs over the year, volatility has plagued the local leisure and hospitality sector, as well. The slow return of tourism and continued reopening efforts provide sluggish relief.
“This has been an industry that has absolutely been struggling as regulations focused on face-to-face interactions,” Vance-Sherman said.
Construction is the county’s lone bright spot, adding 2,400 jobs over the year.
Much of the demand has been for specialty trade contractors and large, civil engineering construction. Vance-Sherman attributed the growth to the Puget Sound’s robust housing market and the Sound Transit 3 project bringing light rail to Snohomish County.
As for any return to the low unemployment marks of a year ago, Vance-Sherman said the situation remains delicate. She said vaccine rollout and a return of in-person education may allow more people to return to work, with childcare and personal safety out of mind.
“This is counting people and how well they are accessing work, so this is the connection of people to jobs,” Vance-Sherman said. “Overall, it is going to depend on how we navigate moving forward. I expect a big part of it is going to have to do with how comfortable people are, what their risk level is and how safe we perceive our environment to be.”
Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.
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