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Following Winter Slump, Eased COVID Rules, Vaccines Expected To Spur Local Hiring

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA
Economic hardship persists amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but employment is expected to rise this spring with looser restrictions on indoor dining, more widespread vaccination, and an increase in consumer confidence.

Pandemic-related job losses hobbled the local economy through the winter, with the Pittsburgh region sustaining 87,800 fewer jobs in February compared to a year before, according to a new report from the Allegheny Conference on Community Development. But more recent, and more encouraging, national figures suggest the local economy could start to turn around in coming months.

That's the assessment of Jim Futrell, vice president of market research at the Allegheny Conference. He cites as evidence the fact that in March, the country experienced its largest jobs gain since August.

“I think what that does is give a good leading indication of some of the things we might see here in the region as we go into spring,” Futrell said. “The lifting of the restaurant restrictions starting [Sunday], I think will be a big help.

“And [with] pent-up consumer demand,” Futrell continued, “people, I think, are really going to want to go out ... once everybody gets vaccinated, and try to resume as normal a life as possible.”

The Allegheny Conference report is based on employment data from the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. It covers Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Washington and Westmoreland counties.

Its February job figures represent a 7.5% decline in employment since February 2020, the last month before COVID-19 forced the widespread closure of businesses. Following an upswing in hiring last summer, year-over-year job losses in the Pittsburgh area have hovered between 7.5 and 8.6% each month over the past six months, the Allegheny Conference said in its report.

Preliminary data shows that Pittsburgh’s non-seasonally adjusted unemployment rate stood at 8.4 percent in January, the last month for which the data is available. Last April, the rate peaked at 16.4 percent.

Nationally, there have been signs of a increased momentum this year, as the country's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell nationally from 6.3% to 6%between January and March.

Futrell said that employment in Pittsburgh consistently lags that of other “benchmark” regions due slower population growth. And he said it’s tough to predict when local employment will return to pre-pandemic levels: “It all depends on how quickly the leisure and hospitality sector rebounds.”

That industry, the region's third-largest, has borne the brunt of lost jobs. The Allegheny Conference found that while leisure and hospitality represented about 10% of jobs in the Pittsburgh area before the pandemic, the sector now accounts for a third of the local employment shortfall.

Futrell expects business to pick up quickest at food service and drinking establishments. Outdoor dining will expand with warmer weather, he predicted, and eased seating restrictions will allow bars and restaurants to accommodate more people.

But Futrell warned that hotels and other accommodations will likely continue to struggle amid a slow recovery in business travel. The construction industry and other services also account for a disproportionate share of local job losses.

But local culture was a bright spot, compared to activity in other regions. Monday’s report noted that employment at local arts and entertainment organizations has bounced back to 87% of pre-pandemic levels, outpacing the rest of the country. Futrell said those groups have managed to shore up their losses by planning outdoor events.

An-Li Herring:

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