Unemployment numbers in the north country continue to increase as the state and local economy continues to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic.
The Watertown-Fort Drum area had 12.3 percent unemployment in July — up from 11.2 percent in June, according to the most recent statistics from the state Department of Labor.
The north country region boasted a 4.6-percent unemployment rate in June 2019, and 4.9 percent last July.
Rates are calculated using methods prescribed by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The state’s area unemployment rates rely in part on the results of the Current Population Survey, which contacts approximately 3,100 state households each month.
Unemployment numbers continue to rise, but hiring businesses cannot fill open positions, St. Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Brooke Rouse said.
“They’re having a hard time hiring,” she said. “There are now hiring signs everywhere. We’re having a number of businesses post jobs, and they’re gearing up to go back to normal operations, to some degree, and in some cases, need more employees than before.”
Employees with medical concerns are slowly returning to the workplace amid the risk for potential COVID-19 exposure.
As school resumes this week after Monday’s Labor Day holiday, employees struggle to balance finding childcare as districts balance in-person and remote learning.
“People are having to choose between working and childcare that’s not really available,” Rouse said. “If [children] need to be at home for remote learning, it’s very difficult to take a job or return to work.”
The local chamber is working with the Day Care Council of New York and schools about differing schedules to help employees balance supervising their children, assisting to teach them online and put in full work days.
Officials continue to discuss the impact of unemployment benefits and the weekly $600 bonus in unemployment benefits Congress awarded in the CARES Act at the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. The enhancement ended in July.
The north country has the state’s lowest unemployment claims at 131 percent over-the-year percent change as of Aug. 29, according to the Labor Department.
The Mohawk Valley labor market region reported 204 percent over-the-year percent change in claims, with a 222 percent increase in Central New York and the Capitol Region as of Aug. 29.
Some business owners and largely Republican lawmakers argued the $600 bonus was so high, it served as a disincentive for employees to return to work.
Some business owners have had a difficult time getting employees to return to work, Rouse said, but added many people did not take advantage of the unemployment bonus.
“Yes, from an employer’s perspective, they’ve had a hard time, but the reality is, a lot of people have been hard-hit by this and even with this additional money, they’re operating on a shoe string,” she said.
Rouse spoke to county residents who lost their jobs and used the enhancement to pay an unexpected new bill: Health insurance.
The executive director recounted a story of a furloughed worker who continues to pay more than $1,000 a month for health insurance after the employee’s benefits ended a few months into the pandemic.
“There’s no black and white to this at all,” Rouse said. “People who had really good jobs and were supporting their families and their homes were just, overnight, out of work, and they also didn’t have health insurance.
“So though they were getting this bonus with unemployment benefits, their payments have increased in professional situations.”
Jefferson County had 3,200 people employed in the leisure and hospitality sector in July — the lowest number since the beginning of 2006, according to the Department of Labor.
“That’s down significantly year-to-year for the month of July,” said Corey Fram, director of tourism on the 1000 Islands International Tourism Council.
The state reported 5,600 people employed in July 2019 — a 42.8 percent decrease.
July is traditionally the county’s strongest month for tourism employment, as the north country has an influx of tourism jobs in the summer months with seasonal jobs on top tourist attractions such as the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.
The tourism sector makes up 10% of the county’s workforce.
Before the pandemic, visitors to Jefferson County typically spent $268 or $270 million each year on average.
“So it’s a significant part,” Fram said. “Tourism makes up a significant portion of Jefferson County’s economy.”
About 30 percent of the region’s visitors come from in-state. Fram anticipates that number will grow to 50 or 60 percent as the Canadian border remains closed and international travel is down.
“That’s part of what makes us attractive because we have low-population density compared to Central and Western New York,” Fram said. “We have shifted focus to New York state residents — something that will continue into the future depending on restrictions.”
Most New York businesses have reopened, but travel continues to be compromised.
“In terms of unemployment, travel was hit very hard,” Fram said. “When the pandemic began in March nationwide travel jobs were some of the first jobs cut.
“...We’re not rebounding very quickly. For the month of July, we’re 50% of where we were a year ago.”
Travel rebounded after 9/11 and the 2008 Great Recession, but the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic has ravaged the industry harder than any recent historical crises.
“Right now, the travel industry’s loss is rivaling post-World War II,” Fram said. “That’s how far back you have to go. The pandemic is still playing out for the travel industry. We know it’s going to be years before we get back to 2019 levels.”
A rubber-tire destination, the north country also has an advantage, as visitors from more than 30 U.S. states and territories must quarantine for 14 days when arriving in New York to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.
Major travel and leisure corporations, such as Hilton and Marriott, will set new travel norms during the pandemic, Fram said, adding urban restaurants will establish standards for diners.
“It’s up to us to narrow that gap,” Fram said.
Fort Drum, travel and agriculture also make up a significant portion of the area’s employment and revenue.
Reopening delays deeply impacted the region’s hospitality and tourism industries.
“It’s a short window, anyway, and then this year, that window has been even shorter,” said Jefferson County Economic Development Deputy CEO David Zembiec. “Then, with reduced density [patron capacity] and what that does to the revenue, they’re serving fewer customers and doing layoffs and don’t need staff.
“We know businesses all across the sector are a big concern.”
Businesses continue to work to procure sufficient Personal Protective Equipment, such as gloves, gowns, face shields and masks, which takes additional time and resources.
“It’s all for the safety of the public, of course,” Zembiec said. “And it’s not just the cost of the equipment and supplies, it’s the difficulty in obtaining those supplies, and the energy expended to get those supplies.”
Businesses continue to work to safely reopen and serve customers as the coronavirus pandemic continues. Economic activity and spending picked up, Rouse said, as college students returned to the area and people visited the north country over the summer.
“A lot of businesses have figured out what they could do to be successful — it depends,” Rouse said. “Some were unaffected.”
The county development agency allows north country businesses to defer interest-only payments and offers special working capital loan programs, which have helped establishments stay afloat during the pandemic.
“They’re low-interest loans to help businesses with cash flow to get through the immediate crisis,” Zembiec said, adding the entity worked with the local chamber of commerce and other economic agencies.
Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence workforce development officials are working to share information in the regional business community and bridge a skills gap, including vacancies in technical computer knowledge or coding, Zembiec said.
“We’re examining options across the region and what we can do in terms of workforce and supporting child care,” he said. “In terms of ‘training up,’ with the number of people who are currently unemployed way more than usual, there is an opportunity here to train those folks.
“We’re all trying to cooperate — we’re looking at everything,” he added. “We don’t have all the answers yet ... We don’t know the full impact of this yet, but we’re still thinking.”