Another thing to blame on a frigid winter: A spike in Tri-Cities unemployment

Blame it on the snow.

The Tri-City unemployment rate was unseasonably high in March thanks to late-winter snow that delayed the start of the construction and agricultural seasons.

The good news is that the snow is gone, asparagus is poking out of the ground, and early numbers for April suggest the market is well on its way to righting itself, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist.

Asparagus, the first crop of the season, is running about a week behind normal. But Scott Middleton of Middleton Six Sons said the recent warm weather has sparked growth and the harvest in picking up.

The Tri-City unemployment rate hit 7.1 percent, well above the 6.3 percent rate posted a year ago and only slightly lower than the 7.5 percent rate in February, according to figures released Tuesday by the Washington Employment Security Department.

Typically, March signals the start of seasonal hiring in agriculture and construction. But 2019 was delayed, with unemployment in both February and March exceeding 2018 levels.

Suljic said early results suggest the economy will return to normal when April numbers come out in a month.

The state agency tallied spikes in unemployment claims from construction, agriculture and food production, factoring into the March numbers.

“But right now, everybody is back on farms and construction is getting back on track,” she said.

Economy is growing

The unemployment rate is higher than desired, but overall, the economy is humming.

Every sector posted annualized gains.

Construction gained 700 positions, retail 400 and the leisure/hospitality sector 500. 

Administrative services, which includes Hanford, grew by 600 positions while local, state and federal government was unchanged at a combined 20,500 jobs.

The state figures represent the overarching unemployment rate. 

Suljic said the rate is much lower for those with a bachelor’s degree or higher — about 3 percent.

There are shortages at the upper end of the employment spectrum, with challenges filling jobs in higher education, science and analytical positions.

“Experience and education are playing a big role in those shortages of skills. That’s not only local but national,” she said.

By the numbers, the number of working Mid-Columbians grew to 134,526, a 4 percent gain over 2018, or 5,063 positions. 

In just two years, the Tri-Cities has added about 9,000 jobs.

March unemployment: Washington (5.2 percent), Bellingham (5.2 percent), state, 5.2 percent, Seattle (3.7 percent), Spokane (6.5 percent), Spokane Valley (6.8 percent), Walla Walla (6.1 percent) and Yakima (9.8 percent).

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.