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Arizona's unemployment rate prior to coronavirus closures held steady in February at 4.5%

Arizona's unemployment rate prior to coronavirus closures held steady in February at 4.5%

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series
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February unemployment numbers for Arizona showed signs of weakness in retail. However, some of those jobs haven’t been lost but have moved to warehouse centers.

Arizona’s jobless rate remained steady for February in what could be the last such report for a while.

The data, gathered the second week of that month, put the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate at 4.5%. This comes at the same time as the national figure dropped a tenth of a point to 3.5%.

What the numbers also represent is the 112th consecutive month of growth of year-over-year employment.

Given the layoffs and closures from COVID-19, that record is not going to be sustained. The only question is when the unemployment numbers — released a month after the surveys that make them up — will start to show the fallout from the pandemic.

Doug Walls, the market research director for the state Office of Economic Opportunity, pointed out that the figures for March, to be released on April 16, may not reflect what is going on right now in the economy.

“The week that survey was issued and the data was collected was the week of the 12th,” he said. “The state of the economy as it changed from the 12th even to today is drastically different.”

And what that means, Walls said, is the March jobless numbers “might not necessarily show the full impact as we’ve seen them the week (ending) the 21st.”

That’s putting it mildly.

The week the March numbers were collected fewer than 4,000 people filed first-time claims for unemployment. For the past week, that jumped to nearly 30,000.

Figures for the current week will be released Monday, March 30.

Walls did notice something in last week’s figures on first-time claims that might be a bright spot of sorts.

He pointed out that the national figure of 3.3 million represents 1.8% of total employment for February. By contrast, Walls said, the Arizona numbers totaled just 0.9% of the number of people working in the state.

“While it’s quite a significant increase in Arizona, it seems to be that there are other states seeing far greater claims being filed,” he said.

Even the February numbers showed some signs of weakness in a few sectors.

The number of people working at stores that sell furniture and home furnishings dropped not only from January but also are below last year’s levels. There are also year-over-year decreases in employment at stores selling clothing and accessories as well as other general merchandise, with Walls specifically mentioning sporting goods.

“It’s been a kind of longstanding trend within retail trade as we’ve seen traditional retail having to compete more and more with online retail presence,” Walls said.

But he said that, to a certain extent, those jobs are not lost but simply have moved elsewhere, to warehouses and fulfillment centers as well as to transportation and delivery services.

That trend could exacerbate as shoppers seek fewer in-person contacts when making purchases and choose to have items delivered.

A study by the Economic Policy Institute estimated Arizona could lose 280,000 jobs due to COVID-19. In fact, that report said Arizona is more susceptible to job losses than some other states because a higher percentage of the state’s economy is built on the areas that are most affected, like employment at bars, restaurants and hotels.

Extrapolating those numbers out over the current state workforce would result in a jobless rate topping 12%, a figure that hasn’t been seen in the half a century where records are easily available.

Walls declined to speculate on how high the rate will go.

“At this time there are just too many unknowns in order to take even an educated guess at the full ramifications and the full impact,” he said.

“It’s unprecedented that entire industries are being asked to close their doors or find new ways to interact and serve customers,” Walls said. “And so we really need to wait for more data in order to get a better picture of what’s going on.”

On Twitter: @azcapmedia.

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