WENATCHEE — At first glance, North Central Washington’s unemployment numbers for January look good, with some rates below those recorded a year earlier, before the pandemic’s arrival.

But hold off on the cartwheels, say the state’s regional economists — though a small fist-bump of celebration might be in order.

“It looks like a bit of a mixed bag when looking at the job numbers and labor force numbers,” Paul Turek, state economist with the Employment Security Department, said Friday in an email.

The unemployment rate is only part of the picture, which includes big losses in nonfarm jobs — 3,200 jobs in Chelan and Douglas counties alone since the pandemic hit — in various industry sectors. Also, flux in the labor force that was of concern leading up to the pandemic is still in play, as are changes in agricultural employment.

The state Employment Security Department’s year-over-year statistics, comparing January 2021 with January 2020 released March 16, show:

  • The unemployment rate for the Wenatchee Metropolitan Area, which combines Chelan and Douglas counties, is 7% for January this year, compared to 6.7% last January.
  • Douglas County’s rate is 7.2%, below last January’s 7.4%.
  • Chelan County’s rate ticked upward — 6.9% compared to last year’s 6.3% — but nowhere near double digits experienced in the midst of the COVID-19 shutdowns.
  • Grant and Okanogan counties with an unemployment rate in the 8% range this year. It was in the mid-9% range last year.

All are running above January’s statewide rate of 6.8% and the nationwide rate of 6.3%, but the region’s rates were above state and national numbers in January 2020 as well. At that time, the statewide unemployment rate was 4.6%, while the nation’s was 3.5%.

The below-pandemic level unemployment rates are a good sign, as far as it goes, the economists say. Each county, though, has its own set of economic concerns.

Chelan and Douglas counties

In Chelan and Douglas counties, the labor force dropped by 2,450 from January 2020 to January 2021, with the number of unemployed dropping by 18 people, from last year to this year. The region also dropped 3,200 nonfarm jobs this year over last year, with 2,000 of those in the leisure and hospitality sector.

The good news, said regional economist Don Meseck in his Labor Area Summary report for the Wenatchee Metropolitan Area, is the loss in jobs slowed before restrictions tightened again in November, indicating once restrictions lighten, things should improve.

“The unemployment rates for Chelan-Douglas seem to have remained relatively stable over the year in January and are little changed,” he said. “Job numbers look to be stabilizing and are slowly coming back. Things should begin to pick up more as the year progresses and establishments are allowed to open up more.”

Okanogan County

In Okanogan County, before the pandemic, jobs took a hit when Omak Forest Products plant closed in February 2017, Meseck reported as part of a presentation Wednesday to the Economic Alliance of Okanogan County. The county’s agriculture industry also has been losing jobs for the past decade, down 1,260 jobs from 2009 to 2019, though transportation and warehousing added 306 jobs.

The number of Okanogan County jobs took another hit with the pandemic.

“Estimates show that the COVID-related job loss-rate in 2020 was particularly dismal, with the -4.9% loss-rate, indicating a labor market slackening more severe than the -3.8% job loss-rate in 2009 — during the heyday of recent recession,” he said.

On the upside, he noted, the -4.9% nonfarm jobs loss-rate in Okanogan County was not quite as severe as the state’s overall -5.3% nonfarm job loss-rate.

The county also saw a drop in its workforce, down 335 this January over last.

“The local Civilian Labor Force still looked rather weak in Okanogan County this January, with 18,598 residents in the labor force versus 18,933 in January 2020,” Meseck reported. “This is discouraging news.”

On the other hand, he said, the number of unemployed residents decreased, from 1,825 in January 2020 to 1,518 in January 2021. The combination of the two resulted in the drop in the overall unemployment rate.

It’s also a good sign that Okanogan County’s job-loss rates have slowed since August, which is not the case in other areas of the state, Turek said, indicating that “jobs appear to be coming back a little sooner.”

Grant County

In Grant County, jobs also were in flux before the pandemic hit. Manufacturing jobs had been declining for 31 months, from January 2018 through July 2020, but posted gains from August through December last year, according to Meseck’s December Labor Area Summary for Grant County.

All the new jobs in the Grant County area occurred in nondurable goods manufacturing, primarily in the food processing sector. The county’s leisure and hospitality sector added jobs for 23 months from May 2018 through March 2020, before COVID-19 hit.

The county’s labor force grew by 674 residents, from 2019 to 2020, the only county in the central region to add to its labor force.

“The substantial labor force expansion more than offset the marginal rise in the number of unemployment,” Meseck said.

The state will release the next set of statewide and county-by-county unemployment numbers Tuesday. The Labor Area Summaries of those February numbers are expected to be available next week.