It’s no surprise that pandemic-related business shutdowns have led to numerous job losses in Yakima County and the rest of the state.
Preliminary numbers recently released by the state Employment Security Department also show that the losses surpassed those from a decade ago, when the county and the rest of the U.S. were in the throes of the Great Recession.
In 2020, Yakima County reported an average of 83,500 jobs, according to preliminary figures from Employment Security. That’s 3,500, or 4%, fewer nonagricultural jobs year over year. That’s a much more sizable loss than in 2009, when Yakima County reported 1,400 fewer jobs year over year, or a 1.7% drop.
“The losses in 2020 were much more broad-based than in 2009,” said Don Meseck, regional economist for Employment Security.
A calendar year of job figures provided more insight into the impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Yakima County’s job market. Here are a few takeaways.
■ Essential work, especially in agriculture, kept jobs in place in Yakima County.
The annual average unemployment rate for Yakima County was 9.5% in 2020. That’s the highest rate seen in the county since 2013, when annual average unemployment was at 10%.
But the increase in the unemployment rate compared to a year ago was notably higher for the county and other parts of the state. Washington state’s annual average employment rate went from 4.3% in 2019 to 8.3% in 2020, a 4 percentage point increase. Neighboring Kittitas County also saw a similar increase in the unemployment rate, from 5.5% in 2019 to 8.9% in 2020.
Yakima County’s unemployment rate, in comparison, jumped 2.5 percentage points from 7% in 2019.
Meseck said employment in agriculture, deemed an essential industry during the COVID-19 pandemic, likely kept unemployment rates from rising even higher.
The Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages, or QCEW, figures from the second quarter, the latest available, show that 30% of the county’s total jobs are in agriculture. Typically, agriculture makes around a quarter of all jobs.
In addition, several nonagricultural sectors in Yakima County, such as wholesale trade, nondurable manufacturing, and transportation, include jobs deeply tied to agricultural production.
“Agriculture, in general, tends to hold us back in the boom years, but insulate us in the bust years,” Meseck said. “I think that’s probably what has occurred here.”
■ Most sectors had job losses, but a handful of industries bore the brunt.
All but one sector in Yakima County saw either flat or declining job numbers. However, three sectors — leisure and hospitality, local government and manufacturing — made up 77.1% of the county’s job losses for 2020.
Leisure and hospitality, which includes hotels, restaurants and entertainment venues, reported the greatest drop in jobs. In 2020, the sector lost 1,300 jobs year-over-year, a 15.7% decrease. Several businesses within this category, including restaurants, bars and movie theaters, were impacted by extended closures or limited operations due to COVID-19 restrictions. Several restaurants closed for good.
The 800-job loss in local government likely reflects cuts in education, which has gone through tremendous changes during the pandemic.
Other sectors saw losses ranging from 100 to 400 jobs year-over-year. Wholesale trade jobs, which include jobs in fruit packing houses, were flat from a year ago.
In 2020, just one sector in Yakima County saw a year-over-year increase in jobs. Transportation and utilities, which includes jobs with truck transportation companies and warehouse facilities, had 200 more jobs, an increase of 4.1% from the previous year.
In comparison, while Yakima County experienced job loss overall in 2009, several sectors reported year-over-year increases, including health services, transportation and local government.
Manufacturing and leisure and hospitality were again among the top three in job losses back in 2009, with 900 and 600 fewer jobs, respectively. However, construction saw massive loss as well, reporting 600 fewer jobs, a reflection of the inflated real estate construction activity that led to the Great Recession.
• Job recovery unlikely to come quickly in 2021.
Initial unemployment claims in Yakima County reached their lowest point during the week ending Oct. 24, when there were just 548 claims, well below the 3,000 to 4,000 weekly new claims seen early in the COVID-19 pandemic, when a state stay-at-home order forced many businesses to close or scale back operations.
However, claims have increased since then, likely a reflection of closures or scaled-down operations from new COVID-19 restrictions issued in mid-November. By the final week of 2020, 1,699 claims had been filed.
Yakima County saw its most dramatic losses in May, when losses year-over-year reached 9%. Job loss then decelerated over several months and was as low as 3.4% in August. Meseck said the trend made it seem the county was starting to recover.
But since then, job losses have remained in the 3% to 5% range.
“I don’t see any signs of a quick recovery, at least into the January and February time frame, nor do I see the loss rates increasing again,” he said.