Statewide unemployment drops below 5 percent but northern counties still struggle

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Capital News Service
LANSING- The percent of unemployed Michigan workers dropped below five percent last January for the first time since 2001, the  Department of Technology, Management & Budget reported recently.
But many workers in the northern part of the state didn’t fare as well as the rest of the state.
Montmorency, Presque Isle and Schoolcraft counties all have double the state’s unemployment rate. Cheboygan and Mackinac counties have triple, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics.
That may be due to which industries are leading the state’s economic growth.

“The recovery we’ve had was stronger in Michigan than in many other states because the auto industry bounced back,” said Charles Ballard, a Michigan State University economist and expert on Michigan’s economy.
The northern counties are less able to take advantage of the resurgence of the auto industry, which is based in the southern part of the state, said Jim Stansell, senior economist for the House Fiscal Agency.
Since the mining industry’s decline, many Upper Peninsula workers have sought work elsewhere, Ballard said.
Many U.P. workers rely on tourism. Statewide, tourism provides about 214,000 jobs, according to a 2015 state report.
The seasonal nature of Michigan tourism means counties that are not traditional winter tourism destinations can suffer substantial unemployment in the winter months, said Jim Rhein, an economic analyst for the Department of Technology, Management and Budget.
“Mackinac and Cheboygan are the most seasonal counties in the state,” he said. “In the winter time there isn’t much tourism in those areas.”
But in the summer, those counties have high tourism and low unemployment.
This dramatic difference in employment rates throughout the year can have consequences for workers, Rhein said.
“There is a slowdown across most employment sectors,” he said. “Unemployment claims always rise there in the winter, far higher than they are in the summer.”
Mackinac County’s July 2015 unemployment rate was nearly 15 percent lower than its January 2016 rate, while Cheboygan County experienced a 10 percent differential in the same period, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics
“This is sort of a roller coaster ride folks have to deal with,” Rhein said.
While the two counties’ winter unemployment rates continue to be much higher than the state average, they are shrinking, according to the bureau. The January unemployment rate dropped by nearly 10 percent between 2009 and 2016 in Mackinac County. It dropped by slightly more than 5 percent in Cheboygan County during the same  period.
The seasonal nature of working in the most tourist-dependent parts of the U.P. creates two basic options for workers, said Deborah Doyle, executive director of a U.P.sub region for the Upward Talent Council-Michigan Works, an organization that helps unemployed residents find jobs.
“There are some folks that may work different seasonal jobs, but there is a population that during that non-peak season may live off savings and unemployment benefits knowing they will be called back to work again next season,” Doyle said.
That population, dependent on unemployment benefits and savings, earns less than they would if more stable employment were available, she said.
Legislation passed in 2012 further hinders the ability of such workers to survive, said Peter Ruark, senior policy analyst for the Michigan League for Public Policy. It blocks families with over $5,000 in savings from receiving food assistance.
“We don’t want to force people to deplete their savings and punish them for doing the right thing,” he said. “People should receive food assistance when they aren’t making enough to support their families.”

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