Jobless rate slides back from pandemic peak in Pennsylvania

Marc Levy
The Associated Press
A closing post at Great Clips in the Shoppes at Wyndham Friday, May 8, 2020. According to a consultant's report on York County's economic future, up to 30% of local businesses may have to shut their doors permanently. Bill Kalina photo

HARRISBURG — Pennsylvania’s unemployment began sliding down from its pandemic peak in May, even clocking in at below the national rate as payrolls grew by almost 200,000, the state said Friday.

Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate was 13.1% in May, down 3 percentage points from April’s adjusted rate, the state Department of Labor and Industry said. It had initially estimated Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate at 15.1% in April, its highest rate in over four decades of record-keeping.

But that preliminary figure was adjusted upward to 16.1% in April, setting yet another four-decade record. The national rate was 13.3% in May.

Previously, Pennsylvania’s highest unemployment rate was 12.7% in 1983, according to federal data that goes back to 1976 under the same methodology. It is a dramatic change from last year, when Pennsylvania’s unemployment rate hit a nearly two-decade low of 4.1%.

Meanwhile, payrolls began rebounding, gaining back about 1 in 5 jobs lost during the pandemic as the number of new infections has slowed, Gov. Tom Wolf eased social distancing restrictions and many businesses have reopened.

At its height, payrolls fell by more than 1 million to the lowest level in at least three decades of federal data that goes back to the start of 1990 under the same methodology.

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A survey of employers showed seasonally adjusted nonfarm payrolls grew by 198,300 in May to almost 5.2 million, the department said.

Hardest hit has been the leisure and hospitality sector, shedding about 60% of its payroll from earlier this year as restaurants and bars were forced to shut down in-house service and shift food service to takeout or delivery.

In May, the sector grew by 16% to 276,000 jobs. Construction payrolls led gainers, climbing nearly 50%, by 77,000 jobs after losing 40%, or 100,000 jobs, in April. Every sector added jobs back, except for information services and government, both of which shed more than 4% of payroll.

Meanwhile, nearly 2.8 million Pennsylvanians have sought unemployment benefits since mid-March, including the self-employed, gig workers, freelancers and others who do not typically qualify. That’s about 40% of May’s labor force in Pennsylvania.