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Lancaster County’s unemployment rate fell to 11.4% in May, the state reported Tuesday, another indication that the pandemic’s grip on the local economy has loosened a little.

Though the May figure is the second worst rate here since the Great Depression, it’s also a significant improvement from the 15.2% rate recorded in April, the worst rate since the Great Depression.

The progress, such as it is, reflected a substantial drop in the number of unemployed Lancaster County residents from the second week of April, when the April data was gathered, to the second week of May, when the May data was collected. That figure tumbled from 42,500 to 33,000, a change of 9,500, the state report shows.

“The unemployment rate is moving in the right direction. The size of the labor force (which includes people working and jobless people who are seeking work) increased, suggesting people are not being discouraged from looking for a job,” noted Naomi Young, director of the Center for Regional Analysis, part of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County.

The improvement in the unemployment rate was expected, since the number of new claims for unemployment benefits filed by countians and the number of continued (ongoing) claims for benefits have been declining for weeks, as LNP | LancasterOnline has reported. Both trends are continuing, a positive indicator for the June employment rate, which gets released by the state on July 28.

Still, encouraging trends aside, the unemployment rate in May was staggering. For comparison, the May 2019 rate was 3.3 percent -- a normal rate here before the pandemic and less than a third of the new rate, as the county back then had 9,300 unemployed residents.

Unemployment soared beginning in mid-March, as Gov. Tom Wolf ordered all but life-sustaining businesses to close and told employees of those non-essential businesses and other residents to stay home, to stem the outbreak of COVID-19.

The steps helped limit the spread of the virus but prompted non-essential employers to slash thousands of jobs.

Since May, though, Wolf has been gradually allowing shuttered businesses to reopen, albeit with restrictions, and employers have been bringing back some of their furloughed workers – yet nowhere near their usual complement.

The most extreme example is the leisure and hospitality sector (hotels, motels, restaurants, bars etc.). This sector added 3,800 workers from April to May but remained a stunning 11,200 below its May 2019 level, according to the state Department of Labor & Industry report.

Other examples abound: construction added 3,700 workers, but still lagged 2,500 below May 2019; manufacturing added 1,700 workers, but fell 2,100 short of the May 2019 mark; retail trade added 2,400, but fell 3,000 short of the year-earlier level; health care and social assistance added 900, but fell 3,100 short of the May 2019 level.

With the May decline, Lancaster County’s rate dipped well below the statewide rate (13.1%) and the national rate (13.3%). The county’s rate also was better than the rates of most other metropolitan areas in Pennsylvania.

Of the 17 other metros in the state, only State College (8.3%), Chambersburg (10.8%), Lebanon (11.3%) and Harrisburg/Carlisle (11.3%) beat Lancaster County’s 11.4%. East Stroudsburg had the state’s highest rate among the metros at 18.0%.

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