Employment, unemployment creep up in Wisconsin as more people seek work

By: - May 21, 2021 5:00 am
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Ben Franklin on the 100 dollar bill with a face mask. Coronavirus affects the world economy. Getty Images

Wisconsin job growth was tepid in April, with employment opportunities rising but also more people entering the labor force, according to the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD).

While the state has recovered a substantial number of the jobs that were lost in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, employment remains below the pre-pandemic peak in February 2020, DWD reported.

The total number of people working rose by about 7,100 in April compared with a month earlier. At the same time, however, the number of people looking for work rose by 2,000. Taken together, the number of people working and looking for work in Wisconsin totaled 3.075 million, according to DWD. With more people now in the labor force in April compared with March, the state’s unemployment rate crept up to 3.9%.

Laura Dresser head shot
Laura Dresser, courtesy University of Wisconsin

“Unemployment grew because more people came into the labor market than were taken out of it by work,” said Laura Dresser, associate director of COWS, a research and policy organization at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Although very small from March to April, she said the growth suggests that “people are being drawn back into work.”

The state’s job numbers continue to catch up to levels before the COVID-19 pandemic, but remain about 4% below the last pre-pandemic report in February 2020.

Wisconsin job gains in April over March this year were modest, while compared with a year ago they were much more pronounced. Leisure and hospitality jobs — the hardest sector hit in the first phase of the pandemic, when bars, restaurants and other public places were closed — increased by 94,800 in April 2021 compared with April 2020. But the sector remained 17% below its pre-pandemic strength.

Government jobs, another sector that shrank sharply in the pandemic, have similarly increased slightly month to month, almost entirely in local government. But they remain nearly 7.7% behind February 2020.

As vaccination rates increase, Dresser said, more people may enter the labor market in the coming months. But that will probably be gradual because of challenges like lost child care access and the realization that “returning to work without health insurance suddenly makes less sense,” she added.

“It will take a sense of safety, or a sense of the quality of the job, of a lot of kids going back to school or child care centers opening to put people in the same relationship to work that they were in before the pandemic,” Dresser said.


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Erik Gunn
Erik Gunn

Deputy Editor Erik Gunn reports and writes on work and the economy, health policy and related subjects, for the Wisconsin Examiner. He spent 24 years as a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine, Isthmus, The Progressive, BNA Inc., and other publications, winning awards for investigative reporting, feature writing, beat coverage, business writing, and commentary.