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Lehigh Valley’s Unemployment Rate Held Steady in June Amid Pandemic

By Nicole Radzievich Mertz on July 28, 2020

Lehigh Valley Unemployment Rate

Lehigh Valley’s unemployment rate held steady at 14% in June, according to new data released June 28 by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry. (Graphic/Liz Martin)

Lehigh Valley’s unemployment rate held steady at 14% in June even as pandemic-related restrictions began to ease on businesses, according to new data released July 28 by the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

That rate remains about three times higher than before the pandemic but 2.6 percentage points lower than April when COVID-19 cases began to spike, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry.

The total civilian labor force in Lehigh and Northampton counties for June totaled 350,400, 301,400 of whom were employed and 49,000 unemployed, according to the preliminary, seasonally-adjusted figures.

The reporting period coincides with Lehigh Valley entering the “yellow phase” of business reopening June 5 and the “green” phase June 26. Gov. Tom Wolf has since re-imposed some statewide restrictions to bars and restaurants and public gatherings after a rise in COVID-19 cases in certain parts of the state in July.

More timely economic indicators, including weekly unemployment claims and online job ads, suggest a more nuanced narrative that the recovery may be may not be linear nor equal in all localities. Here is a peek at where Lehigh Valley was and is a little more than halfway through 2020.

The Sharp Rise in Unemployment Claims

Unemployment claims surged across the country following the business disruptions related to the pandemic. Continuing claims in Lehigh Valley (the number of people receiving unemployment benefits) reached a high of 66,806 during the week ending May 2. The number of continuing claims has since been nearly cut in half. The week ending July 18, the number of continuing claims in Lehigh and Northampton counties totaled 36,330. That is still nearly six times what the weekly continuing claims were at the end of February.

The chart tracks the number of continuing claims filed weekly in Lehigh Valley. (Graphic/Liz Martin)

Unemployment claims were not equally filed in all industries. The following chart breaks down the percentage of continuing claims filed weekly by industry for the last week of February before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic and the latest data for weekly claims filed for the week ending July 18. It also shows the percentage of the workforce each industry employed in Lehigh Valley as of the First Quarter.

The Demand for Workers During the Pandemic

Initial Unemployment Claims and New Online Job Ads

The graphic tracks the number of initial unemployment claims and new online job ads the week ending May 2 through July 18. (Graphic/Liz Martin)

Online job ads provide insights to employers’ views on business prospects. A three-month look shows that the number of new ads reached a low in early April, nearly the same time that the number of new unemployment claims in Lehigh Valley peaked at 21,654. The number of new ads posted weekly surpassed the number of new unemployment claims filed for the week ending July 18. The job ad data, collected by JobsEQ Chmura Economics, are subject to revision.

In the last 30 days, there were a total of 16,946 online ads for jobs in Lehigh Valley, according to JobsEQ. That included 599 occupations and 4,200 employers. Among them, 2,435 specifically advertised for applicants with an associate’s degree or higher.

Many of the ads were for workers in businesses deemed essential during the pandemic. These included e-commerce distribution centers, which adapted to new demand when retailers were closed or reduced capacity.

Over the last three months, there were total 1,408 ads for stockers, industrial truck drivers, packers and similar workers in demand by employers in the logistics industry, according to JobsEQ. Here is a look at how the number of new ads for those positions tracked this year over last year:

Meanwhile, some health care providers saw a drop in elective procedures, perhaps prompting the uptick in unemployment claims in that industrial sector. But workers in that industry also cared for an influx of COVID-19 patients and performed more testing, producing a demand for other health care workers.

There were 916 total job ads over the last three months for registered nurses, critical and acute care nurses and advanced practice psychiatric nurses, according to JobsEQ.

Here is a look at how the number of new ads for those nursing positions tracked this year over last year:

What Other Indicators Say

Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit think tank, is measuring communities’ recovery during the pandemic.

The Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton metropolitan region, which is a little larger than Lehigh Valley and includes Carbon and Warren counties, made some gains in the labor market from May to June. The region’s labor market grew to 345,500 full- and part-time jobs. That’s a 4.6% jump over May in Lehigh Valley, making it the 11th biggest monthly gain of all metropolitan regions its size, according to Brookings’ analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

Brookings also uses some non-governmental resources to fill out the picture. Using Google Mobility Reports, Brookings calculated the number of visits to workplaces increased by 8.2% from May to June, ranking the region as making the 12th biggest jump of all metropolitan areas its size. The number of visits to Lehigh Valley workplaces, however, is still 29.2% lower than the five-week baseline period in beginning of the year.

Lehigh Valley has been considered a strong place for essential work force. A research report by Apartmentlist.com found that Lehigh Valley ranked in the top 10 among the country’s 100 largest metropolitan areas for the percentage of workers in “exposed” occupations: those that are deemed essential but are least able to be done from home. Workers in those occupations – including nurses, material handlers, manufacturing production workers, and truck drivers – comprise nearly 40% of Lehigh Valley’s Labor Force.

An analysis by JobsEQ shows that 8.7% of the Lehigh Valley’s workforce in the First Quarter could be done remotely. Another 23.8% of the jobs could be done remotely part of the time. Two-thirds of the workforce have jobs that cannot be done remotely.

Chmura’s vulnerability index, which measures the potential negative impact of the crisis based on a region’s mix of industries, puts Lehigh Valley a little bit better of a position than other communities. On an index of 100, Lehigh County scored 92.14 and Northampton County 96.81.

Communities more reliant on tourism, an industry which has taken a hit during the pandemic, scored much higher. The index does not account for infection rates, local restrictions or whether businesses within the industries are deemed essential.

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