Last week, Governor Jim Justice touted the last unemployment figures for the state. West Virginia’s seasonally adjusted jobless rate for September was 4.6 percent.
Workforce West Virginia Acting Director Scott Adkins said employment now exceeds pre-pandemic levels.
“The 765,000 total employment is actually 1,900 more jobs than we had in September 2019,” Adkins said, “very significant.” He added that the number of unemployed West Virginians is 12,600 fewer than two years ago.
Unemployment surged during the pandemic to record highs as businesses shut down or reduced their workforce. At the peak of the pandemic, nearly 147,000 West Virginia workers filed for weekly unemployment benefits. That number is now down to just under 7,000.
Clearly, this is positive news for the state. It suggests that the state’s economy is improving rapidly as the pandemic subsides. However, there is a downside to the tight employment market: Businesses cannot find workers.
Look around the state and talk with business owners. They are finding it difficult, and sometimes impossible, to fill vacancies. Help wanted signs are everywhere and some businesses are offering signing bonuses to try to attract workers.
West Virginia already has the lowest labor participation rate in the country. Figures from the WVU Bureau of Business and Economic Research show just 55 percent of the adult population is in the workforce. The national average is 62 percent.
Additionally, the “quit rate” of workers is surging. According to the Washington Post, a study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics finds “historic levels of people leaving jobs and a near-record number of job openings.”
Ben Ayers, a senior economist at Nationwide, told the Post, “It is a sign of health that there are many companies that are looking for work[ers]—that’s a great sign,” Ayers said. “The downside is there are many workers who won’t come back in. And in the long term you cannot sustain a labor market that’s as tight as it is right now.”
This discussion inevitably produces the argument that employers need to pay workers more, provide better benefits and flexible work schedules. Labor can make those demands because of the tight market.
However, most businesses in West Virginia and across the country are small. They are still coming out of the pandemic recession and are trying to keep the doors open. They cannot easily increase their payroll.
Governor Justice and his economic team are within their right to crow about the jobless rate. The state’s chief executive gets the credit for good news and the blame for bad news, regardless of their role.
However, the positive jobless rate belies the fact that West Virginia’s economy desperately needs more people to go to work here.