More Idahoans are working today than before the coronavirus pandemic began nearly two years ago.
Nearly 890,000 workers were on the job in December, according to figures from the Idaho Department of Labor. At the same time, the state had a record-low unemployment rate of 2.4%. That shattered the old record of 2.5%, recorded in December 2019, three months before the start of the pandemic.
Idaho is one of four states that have recaptured jobs lost in the early months of the pandemic. Idaho is joined by Utah, Texas and Arizona. All four states are controlled by Republicans, and two common threads are that each state imposed few COVID-19 restrictions and experienced strong population growth.
“Idaho’s population growth is leading the nation,” Craig Shaul, a research analyst with the Idaho Department of Labor, said by phone. “I think the open spaces and open business environment kind of led to that. One of the key driving industries we have is the outdoors, and the economic inertia we had was something that led Idaho to being one of the first states to rebound and emerge from the damage of the pandemic.”
Idaho ended 2021 with 20,877 more jobs than in February 2020. At the end of November, the most recent data available from the other states, Utah had 61,000 more jobs, Texas had 28,000 more, while Arizona had nearly 5,000 more.
“Idaho’s economy is booming, and people are working at historic rates, proving that the conservative principles of cutting taxes, slashing regulations, and making investments where they matter most lead to opportunity and prosperity for the people,” Gov. Brad Little said in a news release.
Adam Kamins, the director of regional economics at Moody’s Analytics, told the Wall Street Journal that he expects a third of states to return to prepandemic levels of employment about mid-year. A lack of population growth in California and the Northeast will keep those states from reaching those levels until later, he said.
Before the pandemic, in February 2020, Idaho reported 866,502 workers employed throughout the state. Two months later, the number dropped to 775,219. But employment rose throughout the rest of 2020, topping out at 865,649 in December.
Employment remained above 869,000 — more than before the pandemic — throughout 2021. While there is usually a lull in November and December, employment remained strong, ending the year at 887,379.
Across the country, more than 22 million jobs were lost in March and April of 2020. By the end of November, there were 3.6 fewer positions than in February 2020.
Some of the largest Idaho jobs gains have come in the leisure and hospitality sector, one of the hardest-hit industries from the pandemic. Employment in that area, which includes restaurants, hotels and tourism-oriented products and services, climbed to 88,400 in December, the labor department reported. That’s up from 84,800 in February 2020, a month before the pandemic began.
By April 2020, only 50,600 people were working in those industries, as many restaurants closed temporarily and hotels and tourist businesses laid off staff because fewer people were traveling. Even so, leisure and hospitality climbed back to 83,400 by the end of 2020 and in 2021 surpassed pre-pandemic levels.
Construction continues to boom in Idaho. At the end of 2021, there were 59,500 jobs, up 1,900 from December 2020. Despite the pandemic, that industry added 2,900 jobs in 2020.
“Construction is still very strong,” Shaul said. “Demand for building new buildings and houses has gone unabated. It might have been the least-affected industry when we had the disruption in 2020.”
It’s too early to know whether the omicron COVID-19 variant will affect employment levels in Idaho.
“I think the effect of what we’ll see in Idaho is likely to start with January and February numbers,” Shaul said. “The strong November and December numbers would indicate that wasn’t something that was necessarily here yet. Whatever effect we see will be in the next couple of months.”