While the Derby Labor Market Area and Orleans County as a whole have the highest unemployment rate in Vermont, the region was the only one to see an increase in the number of people employed.
The Orleans County unemployment rate stands at 5.6% according to the January report released earlier this month by the Labor Department, well above the state’s not seasonally adjusted rate of 3.7%. But while the state recorded a shrinking labor force and fewer people employed, Orleans County had just nearly 50 more people working and added 200 people to its Labor Force (which is the total number of people working or looking for work). Essex County, with a 4.9% unemployment rate, was the only other county in the state to add to its Labor Force between December and January and the total number of people employed was nearly flat.
Caledonia County, with an unemployment rate of 4.0%, had a modest decrease in the Labor Force and the number of people employed.
The employment data, though, still shows the job market is a far cry from where it stood in early 2020. There are roughly 600 fewer people working now compared to a year ago in Caledonia County, 1,300 fewer in Orleans County and 200 fewer in Essex County.
“Since last year, Vermont employers have nearly 30,000 fewer filled positions on payroll. However, based on early news about the vaccine, the Department is optimistic that the state will start to experience significant economic recovery in 2021,” said Michael Harrington, Labor Commissioner. “The Department is here to assist Vermont companies with their recruitment efforts, as well as job seekers looking for their next career or training opportunity.”
One concern is whether expanded unemployment benefits have created a disincentive for people to find and accept work as Vermont’s employers and economic sectors begin to emerge from the pandemic. The state’s job search requirement for unemployment eligibility was suspended last year while the amount and potential duration of benefits was increased by federal and state economic relief packages.
On Tuesday Gov. Phil Scott discussed the challenges some employers have had finding people to return to work now that the economic sectors are beginning to reopen or expand services with the loosening of virus restrictions.
“There will be a work search requirement in the near future as soon we are able to vaccinate more Vermonters,” said Scott. I think then there’s no reason they can’t go. From my point of view until we get to a point where we have child care provided and we have an opportunity for people to be vaccinated.”
“It’s difficult because every situation is different to force them back to work, but it is not going to be long, ” said Scott. “We are at a point where we are going to be on the 19th offering everyone over the age of 16 the opportunity to sign up for a vaccine. … I feel by the 4th of July we will be back to normal so everything should be back to normal in the work-related setting. We will be providing for that work search requirement in the not too distant future.”
When asked how to address potential labor shortages, especially for hospitality businesses trying to emerge from the pandemic and head into the summer tourism season, Gov. Scott noted the state was hindered by a shortage of workers even before the pandemic.
“I understand, and I just want to remind everyone that pre-pandemic we had some workforce challenges on our hands. We had a 2.2% unemployment rate. We had more jobs than we had workers to fill them,” said Scott. “This is what’s going to happen after the pandemic as well. We are going to be faced with this. That is why some of the policies we are trying to move forward with, trying to attract more people into the state are going to be crucial as we evolve from this pandemic and get back to some normalcy. Unfortunately, normalcy has been that we had some challenges in the workforce. This is just another reminder that it is still here. And I understand the situation some of the businesses are in. They’ve been waiting for quite some time to open back up and now they need employees to make that happen. So we will do whatever we can to assist and I would say we have 35,000 people unemployed at this point. We will continue to advocate for them, if they can, to go back to work and hopefully we will get through this in the very near future.”
Scott also was reluctant for the state to force people to return to work, saying that many families have unique personal challenges as a result of the pandemic, including school and child care concerns. “Everyone is faced with a different situation and I’m sensitive to that,” said Scott, adding the state still needed to make progress getting people vaccinated, schools reopened and other measures. “I think this will work but it’s going to take a little time,” said Scott. “It’s not a flip of the switch.”