GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

July 2, 2013

City's jobless rate falls 15%, but ...

By Ray Lamont
Editor

---- — Gloucester’s unemployment rate fell by more than 15 percent between April and May, new state labor figures show.

But, while noting a sharp drop in the number of people who were unemployed as the unofficial summer season kicked in, the same statistics also show troubling declines in the number of people in the city’s work force, and even a slight decline in the number of those holding down jobs.

The city’s unemployment rate for the month of May was pegged at 7.1 percent in the latest figures released by the state’s Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, and that’s a drop of 15.5 percent from the updated 8.4 percent figure posted for April.

The May rate remains above the statewide unemployment rate of 6.8 percent, though much closer than the 30 percent gap between the state and city jobless rate figures that had carried through first four months of the year. But that’s due in part to the fact that the state jobless rate in May rose from April’s 6.3 percent to 6.8, matching the figures for February and March.

Gloucester’s rate also remained slightly above the city’s jobless mark of 7.0 percent recorded for the same month a year ago, in May 2012, though it pulled even with the Essex County May rate at 7.1. On Cape Ann, Gloucester’s rate remained higher than those of the surrounding towns, according to the state labor and workforce statistics.

Rockport recorded a May unemployment rate of 6.4 percent, down from April’s mark of 6.7 percent, but well above the 4.8 percent mark for May 2012.

Essex’s jobless rate for May was pegged at 4.7 percent, down from both its 5.4 percent figure for April and, more encouraging, from its 5.7 percent mark in May of a year ago.

Manchester’s May rate was reported at 5.2 percent, down from its 5.5 percent rate in April, and even with the 5.2 percent reported for May 2012.

While the sharp rate in the Gloucester jobless rate should bode well for the city’s jobs picture over the summer, the hard numbers behind the rate raise a number of red flags.

The state’s monthly Labor and Workforce Development reports — issued for the state, for each of its counties, and for all of its cities and towns, reflect federal Labor Department figures and are able to track only the number of people who are unemployed within the context of the documented work force. Because of that, state and national analysts have often raised concerns that a drop in workforce figures often signals that, while far more people remain unemployed, many have fallen off the unemployment benefit rolls and are therefore no longer statistically tracked.

The state report shows that, while 1,327 residents in the work force were without jobs in April, just 1,108 were recorded as being unemployed in May, an improvement of some 16 percent. But the workforce statistics also show that, while 14,542 were working in April, 11 fewer — 14,531 — had jobs in May.

That change is tied to a drop of more than 200 — from 15,869 in April to 1,639 in May — in the city’s recorded work force, the largest single drop in Gloucester’s work force numbers in more than a year. It also comes at a time when, through the influx of graduates, seasonal workers and students arriving home from college, the labor force is traditionally expected to grow.

“A lot of other communities are struggling with the same issue,” Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce CEO Robert Heidt said Monday. “You’re trying to make sense of the numbers, but as people fall off the (unemployment benefit) roster, there’s just no way to account for them — we know they’re out there, but it’s hard to get a sense of what they’re doing.”

“Here, we know we have the seasonal employment, which has picked up some,” Heidt noted. “But for some of the businesses we’re hearing from, maybe they brought in six seasonal workers last year, but are only calling in five this year. Or with the (inclement) weather we’ve had, maybe they’re holding off a bit, or maybe they’ve restructured so they can do more with less this year.

“It’s a hard thing to wrap you’re head around,” he added. “It’s almost as if you’re getting a false reading on what’s really happening.”

The overall workforce figures showed slight drops in each of Cape Ann’s three towns as well, falling from 3,794 to 3,776 in Rockport, from 2,723 to 2,711 in Manchester, and from 1,942 to 1,926 in Essex.

While showing a rise in the state jobless rate for the first time since an expected jump between December and January, with the end of the holiday retail season, the state figures also held a mixed bag for other areas as well.

The Essex County rate of 7.1 for May marked a rise from 6.8 percent in April, with the city of Lawrence’s rate rising from 14 percent to 14.7 percent as, by far, the county’s highest.

And while Gloucester’s May figures likely included early job losses due to the new, drastic commercial fishing limit cuts that took effect May 1, Gloucester’s fishery sister city of New Bedford saw its overall jobless rate rise from an April mark of 12.4 percent to 12.9 in May.

The state’s biggest single drop in unemployment came in the Cape Cod community of Provincetown, where the dawn of the tourism season led to a drop from April’s rate of 29.5 percent to 15.4.

Ray Lamont can be reached at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.