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County’s falling unemployment rate plateaus

Unemployment in Williamsport decreased by almost half a percentage in the month of October, showing the metropolitan area’s trend of a recovering workforce is beginning to plateau out.

The Williamsport Metropolitan Statistical Area clocked in a 7.7 percent adjusted unemployment rate in October for an area labor force of 52,700 people. That tallies out to a reported 4,100 people, or 0.6 percent, without jobs in the area’s labor force were seeking employment–down by 300 people from September, according to seasonally adjusted data.

“The big monkey wrench is the COVID-19 impact. Absent that, I would say the trend looks good,” said Steven Zellers, a business and industry analyst with the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

The county’s unemployment rate is down from a reported 8.3 percent unemployment rate in September, a 10.5 percent rate in August and a 12.2 percent rate in July. The county still rests almost 2 percentage points away from last October’s unemployment rate of 5.2 percent of 57,200-person labor force from October 2019, according to seasonally adjusted data.

Between September and October, Williamsport’s labor force dropped by 400 people. Zellers explained this trend is not unique to the area; all across the state and nation, labor forces dropped in the month of October, signalling discouraged workers who left the search. Some of that is definitely related to the time of year, however Zellers indicated COVID-19 is continuing to play a role in people’s job-search decisions.

“Until we get a handle on COVID-19, the business and industry will probably suffer,” Zellers said.

Zellers explained Williamsport is lagging behind the rest of the state in terms of recovering jobs lost in March and April due to the coronavirus pandemic. In the 6 months preceding October Williamsport regained 45.3 percent of the jobs lost between February and April due to the initial onslaught of the pandemic.

“That’s a little bit behind the state rate — the state has regained 56.3% of the jobs since that period,” Zellers said.

Williamsport’s unemployment rate ranks above the state average of 7.3 percent, which is further undercut by the nation’s average unemployment rate of 6.9 percent. Furthermore, Williamsport’s unemployment rate joins the lowest ranks of the major metropolitan labor markets in Pennsylvania. Zellers said the Metropolitan Statistical Area is 15th in the 18 metropolitan statistical areas, and is only ahead of by Erie; Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Hazleton, and East Stroudsburg, which have unemployment rates of 8.2, 8.4 and 8.9 percentages, respectively. These percentages are based on seasonally adjusted data.

Zellers explained different sectors may not be performing as well in Williamsport as they are in other areas. He said the metropolitan area has a manufacturing base that has not expanded in recent years, yet Williamsport has seen some slight gains over the month.

Lycoming County gained around 100 jobs in the trade, transportation and utilities category, whereas some areas of the state are still left behind in that area. Under the retail trade category in particular, Williamsport gained a net of 400 jobs from October in 2019. Meanwhile, while under education and health services, the county gained 200 workers in October, bringing the net yearly loss to 600 jobs in that category that have not been recovered.

The biggest deficit in the private service-providing category is the drop of 1,200 employees in the leisure and hospitality category.

“If the COVID rate is high and people are still sequestered in their homes and not doing leisure and hospitality things, that has economic impact,” Zellers said. “But again, [Williamsport is] not alone in that fact. That is a statewide and nationwide trend.”

Finally, Williamsport lost around 100 federal government jobs and around 100 local government jobs, per the area’s data, which matched an overall loss of 200 jobs from last year.

“The 800-pound gorilla in the room is obviously the COVID-19 pandemic,” Zellers said. “Until the COVID-19 situation stabilizes and declines and we get a handle on the pandemic, there’s obviously going to be muted business activity and limited recovery.”

The state Department of Labor and Industry is scheduled to report its November area data Jan. 5, 2021.

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