Josh Bergeron: More public data needed about economic decline

Published 12:01 am Sunday, May 10, 2020

The systems we use to measure our economy simply aren’t built for the rapid economic decline our community, state and country have seen.

From early March to mid-April, our economy went from roaring to whimpering. Employers in late February and early March needed to make more concessions than usual to find talent to fill their jobs. Now, it’s not clear whether the job market favors employees or employers because so many businesses have been forced to shutdown and there are folks who aren’t keen on returning to work at the moment even if their furlough or temporary layoff were to end.

It’s simultaneously understandable and problematic that the public only has detailed data about public health at the moment. COVID-19 has produced a public health and economic crisis; the end dates for both are not yet clear.

There are few humans alive who have seen anything comparable to what we’re experiencing. And there’s never been a sudden shuttering of society quite like the one we’re seeing now — the Great Suppression.

To gauge the temperature of much of the economy, the general public and business professionals rely on monthly releases of labor and employment data. But monthly data has not been fast enough. The most recent data for Rowan County still puts the unemployment rate at 4.4% in March, which is certainly not true now, in May.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics on Friday said that the national unemployment rate was 14.7% and there’s a portion of economists who believe that number is too low because people who do not have jobs may not be looking for work right now.

But the bureau’s release calendar says state employment and unemployment won’t be released until May 22, two weeks after the national rate. It will be at least May 22 or later before county-level data for April is released.

Until Friday, the best public data about the local situation were surveys conducted by the Rowan County Economic Development Commission. In the most recent survey, the commission found that 50 of the 121 businesses that completed the survey and the 35 additional ones who partially finished it said they were completely closed. All but one of them reported doing so in mid-to-late March. Meanwhile, 122 reported a decrease in weekly income.

More concerning, 11 weeks was the average length of time businesses reported they could survive during statewide shutdowns. And while most businesses can start reopening now (places like barbershops, salons and gyms are still excluded), it’s not clear what traffic and sales will look like once doors reopen.

As federal statistics were released Friday, reporter Natalie Anderson sought to obtain some type of unemployment data to quantify the local situation for April in a story that appears on 1A of today’s newspaper (“Optimism lingers even as jobless rate soars”).

Because the N.C. Department of Commerce had been posting daily unemployment insurance claim numbers on its website, we thought county-specific data might be available, especially because other states had released the same on a county-by-county basis.

When our attempts to reach the agency by phone and email didn’t work, we tried Twitter, tagging them on the social media platform and asking for county unemployment insurance filings on a daily basis. And to modify an old saying, Tweet and you shall receive.

Just minutes earlier, the agency had posted data for March on its website. It’s still not exactly what the public needs. The data is from a month and a half and one stay-at-home order ago. But it gives us more than we’ve had previously about what the local economy looks like. Just in March, 3,747 people filed for unemployment for the first time because of COVID-19. The total number of initial unemployment insurance claims was 4,303.

Of those filing for unemployment, 779 were black, 3,090 were white, 192 were another race and 242 were labeled as “race unknown.” Within those numbers, 246 people were Hispanic.

Those between ages 25 and 34 and 35 to 44 represented the largest portions of local people filing for unemployment at 1,076 and 931, respectively.

At 1,150, manufacturing represented the sector from which the most workers filed unemployment. It was followed by leisure and hospitality at 869 filers.

But state figures show many more people filed for unemployment in April than March. And it’s reasonable to expect Rowan County would follow that trend, as the statewide stay-at-home order wasn’t issued until the end of March.

State leaders must look for ways to offer more transparency into what’s occurred and how things continue to change, particularly because of the degree to which COVID-19 has devastated the economy and public health. Communities of all sizes are struggling and families that had previously been in a comfortable economic situation are suddenly worrying about how to pay bills. Meanwhile, in just two months at least 544 people have died in North Carolina after testing positive for the COVID-19.

Josh Bergeron is editor of the Salisbury Post.