Grays Harbor County jobless rate rises to 5.8%

The unemployment rate in Grays Harbor County remained among the highest in Washington last month, but there are signs the labor market is starting to turn around after getting walloped by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The jobless rate climbed to 5.8% in October from 5.3% in September, according to a monthly employment report from the Employment Security Department (ESD). Grays Harbor County notched the third highest unemployment rate in the state in October.

Statewide, the jobless rate slipped to 5% from 5.1%, while adding 6,300 jobs. The increase in jobs was the smallest since May.

Despite the month-over-month increase in the Grays Harbor jobless rate, the data suggests the local economy is making strides as pandemic-induced stressors ease. The October unemployment rate represents a sharp decrease from the same time last year, when it stood at 8.1%. In fact, the October jobless rate is the lowest for the month of October in more than 20 years.

“People really discovered Westport, Ocean Shores, and Grays Harbor County in general during the pandemic, so the summer travel season was pretty robust,” said regional economist Jim Vleming, who covers Grays Harbor County for the ESD.

While Vleming anticipates some employment decline in the coming months due to the weather and other seasonal factors, he is optimistic that the job market in Grays Harbor County will remain solid.

“When we get into the rain and darkness you see the rate of unemployment creep up, but thankfully we’re starting at a lower unemployment rate this year.”

He expects the predictable end-of-year dropoff to be smaller than usual, and expects high employment rates again in the spring.

The most notable job gains nationally last month were in leisure and hospitality, professional and business services, manufacturing, and transportation and warehousing. Local gaps in the hospitality and leisure sector persist, with many employers unable to fill vacancies.

“Over the years, the number of hospitality and leisure jobs in Grays Harbor County have gone up, and we’ve added up 500 jobs in that sector this year. Restaurant jobs are hard to fill and will continue to be so until the effects of the pandemic play out,” said Vleming.

Persistent coronavirus restrictions aren’t responsible for the staff shortages in the hospitality industry, according to Vleming. He attributes the scarcity to a fundamental shift in the perspective of service workers.

“What I think is happening there is that people really had a chance to think about their employment, and they wanted a career change with higher wages or better child care. There are lots of reasons why people pulled back because it was the right time to assess,” said Vleming.

Washington is still a unique case nationally, with only 1,700 jobs added last month in leisure and hospitality. That makes up about 1% of the nation’s 164,000 leisure and hospitality jobs added nationally, notably below the state’s share of the national population at 2.26%. In manufacturing, however, the state added 6,000 jobs, or about 10% of all manufacturing jobs added nationally.

The state’s heavy losses in the public sector, with a preliminary estimate of 9,300 education and other government jobs lost in October, is on par with the nationwide decline in public education employment over the month.

Grays Harbor County added 80 jobs in October, and experienced very few losses. The number of people looking for work was down to 1,660 for the month of October from over 2,500 last year.

Many service workers took the pandemic as an opportunity to pursue other professional or academic options, said Vleming.