Feast and Famine: a tourist economy

June’s unemployment rate in San Juan County was at 4.3 percent, compared with Washington state’s 5.3 percent, according to a preliminary report by Washington State Employment Security Department’s Labor Market and Performance Branch.

San Juan County has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the state for June, on par with Snohomish County and just a bit above King County at 4 percent.

Since May, predictably, jobs in the leisure and hospitality sector have increased with the tourist season as well as jobs in trade, transportation and utilities.

Comparing employment from June 2014 to June 2015, the analysis shows that the professional and business services sector and mining, logging and construction sector have not added jobs, and have instead decreased.

According to regional labor economist Anneliese Vance-Sherman for the Employment Security Department, those numbers are the remnants of the recession.

“In San Juan County where the recovery is lagging, these two are still declining at this point,” Vance-Sherman said. “Whereas in parts of the state where we’re in a more mature recovery, such as King County, those two industries are really taking off.”

Vance-Sherman said that since San Juan County has such a tourist-based economy, unemployment rates here are often amongst the lowest in the state, since unemployed persons are only counted if they are actively seeking work, which may not happen in the off-season if people work seasonally.

“Even during the times there are fewer jobs available we don’t really have high unemployment rate,” Vance-Sherman said. “People aren’t looking for work because they know the rhythm of the economy. In San Juan County people know when to look for work and when not to look for work because the seasonality is so present.”

Overall so far in 2015, San Juan County has 170 more jobs than last year at this time, a 2.9 percent increase. San Juan County’s peak unemployment level was in 2010, at 9.6 percent. Vance-Sherman says that recovery has been slower in the islands, but employment numbers are consistently better than last year.

Seasonality is a major factor in looking at San Juan County’s employment numbers due to the influx of workers. To illustrate how much it affects the islands, when looking from January to August in 2013, the county added an additional 1,958 jobs, or a 43 percent increase. Vance-Sherman says this percentage increase is consistent year after year.

“There is a gradual decline in unemployment rates, and in San Juan County there’s a lot of noise in those numbers because it’s so seasonal,” Vance Sherman said. “Our recovery has been very slow, but now we’re at the point where we’re seeing employment numbers be higher than they were from the last year and every month.”