SALT LAKE CITY — One year since the coronavirus pandemic shocked the Utah economy, sending thousands of people into the morass of joblessness, the Beehive State today boasts the lowest unemployment rate in the nation.
The Utah Department of Workforce Services reported in Salt Lake City Friday that March's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 2.9%, less than half of the national jobless rate of 6%. Utah's nonfarm payroll employment for March rose an estimated 0.9% over the past 12 months as the state economy gained 13,800 new jobs since March of last year. The state's current employment level stands at 1,566,900, while approximately 46,600 Utahns are considered unemployed.
Three other states also are reporting a 2.9% rate: Nebraska, South Dakota and Vermont.
"March is the first month when the economic comparison is starting to look back on the months of the COVID-19 economic disruption," said DWS chief economist Mark Knold. "Job gains from here forward will start to magnify as it is compared against the job losses experienced a year ago. Utah's underlying trend is positive, will continue and will gain steam as the year progresses."
He said while there are still COVID-19 economic setbacks to overcome, Utah is ahead of the national curve in its economic recovery.
The agency reported that March's private sector employment recorded year-over-year growth of 1.8% with six of Utah's 10 private-sector major industry groups posting net job gains, paced by trade, transportation and utilities adding 12,000 new jobs; professional and business services adding 10,100 new positions; and construction bringing on 5,600 new jobs.
Utah's underlying trend is positive, will continue and will gain steam as the year progresses.
– Mark Knold, chief economist, Department of Workforce Services
Contrarily, four industry groups experienced year-over-year declines as leisure and hospitality services shed 9,300 jobs; education and health care lost 2,400 positions; natural resources dropped 900 jobs; and information lost 500 positions.
"Utah's economic situation has been improving since May of 2020, which is the month after the April 2020 business closures," Knold said. "Utah's steady economic improvement has been one of the nation's best, but it is still in progress and needs more time to develop and more time to include the entire spectrum of industry level reemployment. It must also absorb the labor force growth that aged in during the pandemic but was not able to find employment."
He said while the Utah economy has improved over the past year with the unemployment rate falling to 2.9% — which normally implies a fully functioning and fully employed labor force — those are not the fundamentals behind the current rate.
"An unemployment rate can fall for both a positive and a negative reason. Utah's current 2.9% measure is a combination of both. The rate has come down from the April 2020 high of 10.1% because people have gone back to work and new jobs are being created. That is the positive aspect," Knold said. "The negative aspect is that the unemployment rate has also fallen because the labor force has grown by a larger amount than the new job creation. With largely no job growth across the past 12 months, Utah's typical yearly net labor force growth of around 25,000 people could not find a job. This will cause people to step away from the labor force until things improve and job creation catches up to them. While they are no longer looking for a job, they are therefore no longer counted in the official unemployment rate."
Despite the imbalance, he said the Utah economy is improving, and given that the state is in a pandemic environment, the economy will just take time to pick up speed and catch up with the pool of new workers desiring a job.
Meanwhile, teleworking has been the pandemic's greatest labor force impact, Knold said. In May 2020, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began asking teleworking questions in its monthly household survey as the national economy had gone from an unnumbered but presumed very small percentage of teleworkers before the pandemic, to an instant 35% who now work from home.
"If one looks at the labor force in education segments, the teleworking percentages at some levels are dramatic. For those with a college degree higher than a bachelor's degree, 70% of these workers were able to telework," he said. "For those with a bachelor's degree, the percentage was 55%. From there the education percentages fell noticeably. Those with some education above the high school level could telework at a 25% rate in those with a high school education at only 15%."
He added that recent data suggests that 174,000 Utahns are currently working remotely, and that number could increase.
"Utah's economy offers an optimistic light toward the future. Given the large economic punch that the pandemic delivered, Utah absorbed that punch as well as any state could," Knold said. "There remain labor force bruises and wounds to heal, but the amount of initial damage was as limited as any state saw. It was its pre-COVID strength that has given Utah a powerful head start in its progression toward economic recovery and back on its path of being one of the nation's best state economies."
How the top states compared
- Utah: 2.9%
- Nebraska: 2.9%
- South Dakota: 2.9%
- Vermont: 2.9%
- New Hampshire: 3.0%
- Idaho: 3.2%
Total Job Change:
- Idaho: 1.3%
- Utah: 0.9%
- South Dakota: -1.1%
Private Sector Job Change:
- Idaho, Utah: 1.8%
- South Dakota: -1.0%
- Montana: -1.1%
Source: Utah Department of Workforce Services