KEYSTONE CROSSROADS – New Pennsylvania unemployment data shows the coronavirus shutdown has caused a massive spike in claims in state population centers, but has been felt most acutely on a per-capita basis in some of the state’s most rural counties.
The Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry tracked about 1.3 million unemployment claims filed since March 15, the largest increase in state history, a figure that puts Pa. neck and neck with larger states, like California. Economists have attributed this to an earlier and more aggressive shutdown order from Gov. Tom Wolf and the general vulnerabilities of the state economy before the crisis, among other factors.
Of the total, the state was unable to confirm the location of nearly 500,000 filers. However, the agency indicated that at least 200,000 of those unemployment claims originated in the five-county Philadelphia region.
Jeff Hornstein, executive director of the Economy League of Greater Philadelphia said the economic damage in this part of the state had been “worse than where [Southeastern Pennsylvania] was during the worst of the Great Recession.”
“This represents a whole lot of pain for workers and a huge hit to economic activity and municipal government revenues,” he said last week.
While it follows that many of the state’s unemployment claims would originate in large population centers, like Philadelphia or Pittsburgh, many smaller Appalachian counties saw worse rates of joblessness, per capita.
While Philadelphia, the most populous county, led the state with 83,000 claims filed, that figure represents just 5% of the city’s 1.58 million residents. Rural areas, like Elk County, saw more than 4,700 claims filed out of a total population of just 30,000 — meaning nearly 15% of all residents had claimed unemployment.
Cameron, Juniata, Armstrong and Fayette Counties round out the top five for per capita unemployment filing.
Relatively low earning power in those areas makes the effect of these layoffs especially potent, said Barry Denk, director of the Center for Rural Pennsylvania. In some of the counties hardest hit, “about 50% of households have total household income of less than $50,000 a year … So while the actual numbers of layoffs and, thus, claims for unemployment, are less than urban and metropolitan areas, the impact is just as severe,” he said.
Another 43,000 individuals filed for unemployment from out-of-state residences.
Across the state, the damage was not spread evenly between sectors. Industries and services that depend on freedom of movement — tourism, restaurant work and public transit agencies — were hit the hardest, accounting for close to half of all claims.
Much has been written about the impact of closures in these sectors in large metropolitan centers.
Denk noted rural Pa. feels this pain as well.
“Tourism is Pennsylvania’s number two industry,” said Denk, who referenced the hundreds of small businesses in the state that depend on seasonal flows of travelers. “The long term effect of COVID-19 and the restrictions on travel for residents and tourists can have considerable impacts on the economies and viability of our rural communities,” he added.
Workers in the state’s large education and health sectors, as well as the construction trades, also filed hundreds of thousands of unemployment claims.
Information technology services and public sector jobs have been impacted the least.
The state has struggled to keep pace with the unprecedented number of unemployment claims, as more filings were processed in a few weeks than were seen in entire years. Yet current figures understate the true scope of economic impact related to the shutdown.
As of Monday, sole proprietors and many so-called “gig workers” were still unable to file for unemployment despite being out of work.
Jahmai Sharp, deputy communications director for the Department of Labor & Industry said the state would open a new online portal for these workers to file claims in the coming weeks.
“The department is working as fast as possible to complete the process and will provide more information in the coming days,” he said. “It is important to note the federal CARES Act also will provide unemployment benefits to the self-employed, independent contractors and gig workers.”
Keystone Crossroads is a statewide reporting collaborative of WITF, WPSU and WESA, led by WHYY. This story originally appeared at https://whyy.org/programs/keystone-crossroads.