Local businesses taking advantage of the unusually warm spring, and residents at the end of their unemployment benefits are both being seen as reasons that lowered the city's unemployment rate by some 15 percent from February to March, local officials said Tuesday.
Robert Heidt, CEO of the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce, said he's seeing more optimism from Gloucester's small business community this year.
Shops and inns, he said, opened earlier and have been taking on more reservations than usual this time of year. The warm weather has helped with that, he said, and brought the city's usual influx of visitors a little earlier than usual.
"All those are signs that it's happening," he said.
Yet Gloucester's March 2012 unemployment rate of 8.6 percent, according to the latest individual city and town figures from the state's Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, remains 33 percent above the statewide rate, with 1,358 of the city's recognized workforce in the city's labor force of 15,703 documented on the unemployment lines.
On the plus side, the March jobless rate fell from both the state's revised February mark of 10.1 percent — initially reported at 10.2 — and the rate for March 2011, when the city's unemployment figure hovered at 10.6 percent coming out of Gloucester's traditionally slow winter months.
Yet optimism and a pickup in business activity aren't the only reasons Gloucester's jobless rate also dipped by 23 percent from the March 2011 figures, Heidt and others believe.
Heidt said it's clear that some residents have reached the end of unemployment benefits, and aren't counted in the unemployment numbers.
The Chamber of Commerce, he said, has tried to do something about that through marketing the city as a year-round destination, and supporting local small businesses. Heidt also said the chamber has started advocating that people buy locally to support city businesses, and in turn, helping them expand.
More than 200 people and 20 local and regional companies and institutions turned out for a hastily-organized early April jobs fair at the Elks at Bass Rocks, hosted by the chamber, Action Inc., the North Shore Career Center and Eliot Community Human Services, based in Boston.
Figures from the Labor and workforce Development Office show that the 1,358 recognized as unemployed are out of a workforce of 15,703, and were collecting unemployment insurance in March. But the city's workforce fell from 15,806 in January, and has dropped from an average of 16,339 since the start of the recession in 2008.
"It's (the March number) a combination of probably seasonal uptick in job availability and people exhausting benefits," said Tim Reilly, executive director of Action Inc., a local social service agency.
Many of the city's unemployed, he said, are people on the verge of retirement, or young people who haven't been able to find work.
The loss of unemployment benefits, he said, puts people in a dire situation.
"People can't afford their rent anymore, they double up with friends and relatives, wear out their welcome and wind up at the (homeless) shelter," Reilly said.
The shelter added eight beds to meet the need in December. Reilly said that demand is still there. That, and the demand for job training and job-hunting assistance. He said the non-profit saw a huge increase in the number of people looking for that kind of help in 2008. It's leveled off since then, he said, but hasn't abated any.
The March job figures also don't reflect the sale of Good Harbor Fillet and North Atlantic Fish and their Gloucester job losses. Good Harbor Fillet, while sold in January, closed in April, steering 110 full-time and part-time jobs from here to New Bedford. North Atlantic Fish, with its 25 jobs, will cease Gloucester operations before the end of the year, shifting its operations to Boston.
On the up side, however, several new shops have opened on Main Street in the last few months, Heidt said.
That and the fact that visitors are already coming in during weekends signal that the city's economy has picked up a bit, he said.
Steven Fletcher may be contacted at 1-978-283-7000 x3455, or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevengdt.