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Where are the workers? Thousands haven't returned to Utah labor force since pandemic

A “now hiring” sign is pictured at an Arby’s in Salt Lake City on Nov. 5. Utah just registered its lowest unemployment rate on record, but thousands of workers haven’t returned to the labor force since the pandemic started and aren’t counted in the unemployment rate. (Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)



Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

DRAPER — The Beehive State just registered its lowest unemployment rate on record, however, thousands of workers haven't returned to the labor force since the pandemic started and aren't counted in the unemployment rate.

"It's not quite the same unemployment rate as it was before the pandemic because we had more people participating in and active in the labor force just before the pandemic than we do now," said Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services.

Utah's unemployment rate was an estimated 2.2% for October 2021. The national unemployment rate was 4.6% for the same month.

When compared to pre-pandemic employment levels, Knold said Utah currently has between 13,000 and 14,000 workers who are on the sideline and not participating in the workforce. Because they aren't actively looking for work they aren't considered unemployed.

"The reality is that if everybody was active in the labor force our unemployment rate might be around 3%, which is still very low," Knold added.

Utah's labor force participation rate is currently 67.9% (October 2021) compared to a pre-pandemic participation rate of 68.6% in October of 2019.

In addition to the segment of the workforce that stepped away and hasn't returned, Knold said there's another group adding to the labor shortages plaguing the state.

"People who actually are in the labor force and working but aren't taking that second job like they did before the pandemic," he explained.

A “now hiring” sign is pictured at Salt Lake Running Company in Salt Lake City on Nov. 5.
A “now hiring” sign is pictured at Salt Lake Running Company in Salt Lake City on Nov. 5. (Photo: Kristin Murphy, Deseret News)

A lot of those second jobs were leisure and hospitality jobs that required close contact with people, which Knold said could be a health reason why some workers are staying away.

While the lack of available workers is causing a headache for some businesses, Knold said Utah's economy is strong and he is confident the state will work through the labor shortages and find long-term solutions.

"If you can't find labor, one of the solutions to it is to replace it with technology, to replace it with robotics or even artificial intelligence," Knold said.

Another industry sounding the alarm about worker shortages is home health care.

"We have noticed an alarming shortage of home health care workers in Salt Lake City," the Disabled Rights Action Committee said in a press release. "For many individuals with disabilities, home health care workers provide the basic support services that allow us to live meaningful and independent lives."

Ron Faerber is a board member of the committee and said that he's struggling to find care for his adult daughter, Hannah.

"She was born with severe disabilities," Faerber. "She can't walk or talk or do anything for herself."


If you can't find labor, one of the solutions to it is to replace it with technology, to replace it with robotics or even artificial intelligence.

–Mark Knold, chief economist for the Utah Department of Workforce Services


Faerber said people are quitting the industry and those who stay are getting burned out.

"All insurance providers are struggling to find home health workers," he said. "CNAs, nurses, any type of staff."

The committee is calling for increases in pay for home health care workers and also for increases in the Medicaid reimbursement rate.

"It's a cry for help," Faerber said about alerting the public to the shortages of in-home health workers for those with disabilities.

"Inflation is going up and people cannot live on the amount of money they're making and this is really hard work," he said.

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