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Despite low unemployment rate of 4.3%, good jobs are not easy to come by

Jessica Barona, left, bumps elbows with B. BK Keown, Department of Workforce Services employment counselor, at the department’s office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Barona was able to get a job this morning with the help of Keown.
Jessica Barona, left, bumps elbows with B. BK Keown, Department of Workforce Services employment counselor, at the department’s office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020. Barona was able to get a job this morning with the help of Keown.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Before the coronavirus outbreak, Darren Ray was at least able to get by on the mediocre pay he earned in the service industry, but things started to get really tough when the pandemic hit and he was among thousands of Utahns who found themselves out of a job and wondering what to do next.

He’s spent most of the year working a series of jobs making $9 an hour, primarily part time. A Nevada transplant, he was once a vice president and creative director at a large hotel company. Today, while still well-dressed and dignified, he finds himself on the brink of despair.

“I keep thinking that, yeah, I just have to start all over. But when you’re my age, almost 60, it’s too late to start all over,” Ray said. “They want somebody who is younger, which is crazy for what I bring to the table.”

New data Friday from the Utah Department of Workforce Services revealed a 4.3% unemployment for the state in November, but there are still an estimated 70,900 Utahns considered jobless and looking for work.

With a master's degree and nearly 40 years of experience, Ray knows he is close to the end of his working life, but he doesn’t know how he’s going to make it if he can’t find a position that pays a livable wage, he said.

“You can’t live. You can’t pay your rent. You can’t get food. But I don’t show it. I don’t show anyone,” he said. “I get up, get dressed, put myself together and I don’t show any kind of weakness. Such as that I’m down and out or that I don’t have milk, don’t have food. I just don’t do that.”

Ray is certainly not the only person in that predicament. While the local and national economies may indicate lots of people are working, analysts say the quality of those jobs is not necessarily as good as the positions many laid-off individuals had prior to the pandemic shutdown.

“You can see that this recovery, even though (the Utah unemployment rate) is low and we’re lower than the national average, you can see that it’s really starting to slow down and it seems like we’re starting to go in reverse,” according to Weber State University economics professor Andrew Keinsley.

He said the economy is still “creeping along,” but the recovery has “definitely stalled,” with the numbers in the labor market strongly suggesting that this latest economic recovery has halted.

Congress could help bring some relief with a new COVID-19 aid package similar to the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, Keinsley said. But he noted that several industries like hospitality, tourism as well as retail, dining and entertainment have been among the hardest hit economically, and that is likely to continue for a while longer until the pandemic eases.

“The vaccine is the silver bullet in this case. Everything will get better once the vaccine gets rolling and we get a broad swath of the population vaccinated,” Keinsley said. ”Right now, you really just have to try to help the businesses themselves, especially those (hardest hit) industries. Increasing the number of loans they’re sending out to these companies would be a huge benefit.”

He said with officials better understanding the true nature of the problem in terms of preventing the spread of the virus, now would be the time to take a direct approach to mitigate the economic fallout.

“This is our opportunity. We know what we’re getting into now, the last time we didn’t know what the virus was all about. It was just basically throwing money at it and see what sticks and try to stop the freefall,” he said. “Now, we’re trying to boost the economy a little bit, we’re trying to get it going. We have the ability to do some more targeted stimulus that would go a long way if directed to the right people — who need it the most.”

This year’s challenging jobs economy shows no signs of changing its ongoing uneven effect on local and national employment. While Utah’s rate is slightly up from October’s 4.1%, on a national level, the November jobless rate declined slightly from 6.9% in October to register at 6.7%.

Utah’s year-over-year nonfarm payroll employment for November contracted by an estimated 0.2% in the past 12 months, with the state losing 2,800 jobs since last November.

Toby Barrett, seated, gets some help from the Department of Workforce Services’ Brooke Coster while looking for a job at the department’s office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
Toby Barrett, seated, gets some help from the Department of Workforce Services’ Brooke Coster while looking for a job at the department’s office in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Overall, private-sector employment for the month showed a 12-month decrease of -0.1%, which was an improvement over October’s revised -0.7% deficit.

Half of the state’s 10 major private-sector industry groups saw net job gains between November 2019 and November 2020. The sectors with the largest gains included trade, transportation and utilities, which added 10,700 jobs; construction up 5,200 positions; financial activities adding 4,000 jobs; manufacturing creating 3,700 positions; and other services adding 2,200 jobs.

Contrarily, five industry sectors experienced year-over-year declines in employment, including leisure and hospitality services — losing 19,300 jobs; with professional and business services and information shedding 2,200 jobs, respectively; education and health services lost 1,800 positions; and mining was down 1,200 jobs.

“Utah’s job market continues to incrementally improve with thousands of job openings in multiple industries,” said DWS chief economist Mark Knold. “Utah’s economy has shown itself to be one of the nation’s best in re-employing workers. While the pace of job improvement has slowed in the last few months, we anticipate continued job gains amidst this moderating trend as the economy moves through the winter months.”

Utah currently has the sixth-lowest jobless rate in the nation, which has been a stroke of good fortune for Salt Lake resident Jessica Barona. After being laid off from her job as a flagger on a construction crew doing traffic control due to the winter weather, she contacted DWS early this month to ask for help finding a new job.

Clients fill out paperwork at the Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
Clients fill out paperwork at the Department of Workforce Services in Salt Lake City on Friday, Dec. 18, 2020.
Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

She was connected with an employment counselor who helped her get training to obtain a commercial driver’s license.

“I started that like on the 7th of December, and by studying myself with my book and everything was able to obtain my CDL learner’s permit this last Tuesday,” she said. ”I went (to the employment center) and updated my resume, put in all my current work history and (my counselor) helped me with that and I got a job this morning.”

Though she was extremely dedicated in her effort to find a new job — going to the local employment center daily during time away from studying and training — she credits the staff at the metro job center with helping her find something so quickly.

“If you need a job, go there. The people are great. They will help you, support you and push you and show you whatever it is that you need,” Barona said. “They will lead you in the right direction to find work, to find employers who will hire you.”