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State lost a half a million jobs in April; unemployment reaches 15%

SPOKANE — Washington lost half a million jobs in April, a record drop in employment as the economic vice of the COVID-19 pandemic clamped down.

Figures released Wednesday showed sharp drops in jobs in sectors that cover restaurants and bars, construction, education and health care. The state unemployment rate tripled, from 5.1% to 15.4%. It’s slightly ahead of the national unemployment rate of 14.7%.

Employment usually ticks up slightly from March to April. This year it dropped like a large rock in a pond, with ripples spreading across most industry sectors.

Paul Turek, labor economist for the state Employment Security Department, said the numbers aren’t surprising, considering the record number of claims for unemployment benefits being filed.

The rate of job losses is much faster than the recession of the previous decade and is likely unprecedented in state history. Good statistics don’t exist for the Great Depression, he said.

“We’ve never been through something like this before. It’s pretty much an abrupt shutdown of the economy,” Turek said. “There’s a real good chance of (unemployment numbers) going up next month.”

State officials are allowing some businesses to resume operations in a series of phases, and that may be reflected in unemployment figures for May, which will be released in the third week of June. But restarts might only show up as job losses not being as severe.

It’s also hard to predict the effect of businesses that rush to open ahead of the state’s phased approach versus those that get the green light to open but wait because of concerns about safety or customers, Turek said.

Based on a survey of employer payrolls on April 12, an estimated 190,700 jobs were lost in the leisure and hospitality sector, which includes restaurants, bars, hotels and entertainment. Restaurants were barred from offering dine-in service, and some provided takeout and delivery with reduced staffs.

The number of people who lost jobs in that sector alone was nearly as large as the total state unemployment for March and was greater than the total number of unemployed Washington workers in April 2019.

The next biggest sector for job losses was construction, which was down 81,000 jobs based on the survey. Construction was severely limited in the initial shutdown order that allowed only certain projects to continue, but some work was allowed to resume in April with strict on-site guidelines for protective gear and distances between workers.

The education and health services sector, which includes medical and dental offices and care for the elderly, dropped 59,400 jobs. Retail trade dropped 32,900, as many stores were closed in March and only recently were allowed to make curbside deliveries to customers who order online or over the phone.

The manufacturing sector lost 31,000 jobs, a combination of shutdowns in aerospace and food processing facilities.

Turek said it really didn’t take an economist to predict job losses for April would be bad: “All we have to do is look around.”

Photo: Sharing the water

School 'as usual' is unlikely as state officials begin talks on next school year

SEATTLE — Washington education officials are weighing at least seven scenarios for reopening schools next fall and say the status quo — a patchwork of distance learning models crafted by individual school districts — is “not a viable approach.”

The examples of how school could return range from resuming in-person learning as usual, to developing a new model of remote instruction. The “as usual” model is unlikely, state education department documents suggest, without the creation and mass distribution of a vaccine or a drastic change in coronavirus transmission rates.

The state’s education department has launched a new 123-member work group to study several options. The group, which met for the first time last week, includes a mix of school principals, education-advocacy groups, union representatives, lawmakers and other government officials from across the state.

“If we can’t come back in our traditional model, a bunch of this is going to happen at a distance again,” said state schools chief Chris Reykdal. “That’s what we’re trying to model with this larger work group. What does the fall and next year look like?”

Under one scenario, schools could rotate students through buildings so fewer are on campus at any given time. Another idea: bring students on campus for part of the time and offer remote instruction during days or hours when students are off-site.

Officials are also considering phasing in school openings by county or district, based on recommendations from public-health officials or the governor’s office. Students who aren’t allowed to return on time might learn remotely until it’s safe to learn in person.

Some parents say they’re eager for school to resume — or, at minimum, know their school district’s plans for the fall. Many are concerned their children are falling behind because of coronavirus-related school closures: about 86% of parents said they have this worry, according to a poll of more than 880 Washington parents released Wednesday. The poll was conducted by a nonprofit education advocacy group called The Education Trust.

Some Washington teachers and families have also expressed interest in extending the school calendar, a move that’s unlikely to happen soon, but it could ultimately help schools navigate a scenario where students attend class in shifts.

Some researchers predict schools will be among the last public spaces to reopen, given how difficult it might be to follow social distancing guidelines within school buildings.

Public health data will inform final decisions about reopening, Reykdal said.

Much is unknown about how effectively children transmit the novel coronavirus, though they are mostly spared from the disease’s worst effects. But researchers have recently begun identifying children, including at least one in Washington, with a mysterious inflammatory condition they suspect has links to the coronavirus. The illness seems to be rare, but more research is needed to understand its origins and possible transmission patterns.

The work group is expected to continue meeting in late May and early June. Based on its findings, the state’s education department may release guidance to school districts by June 8.

State audit: Wenatchee Valley Technical Skills Center operated without supervision

WENATCHEE — An administrative council meant to oversee governance of the Wenatchee Valley Technical Skills Center was missing in action during the 2018-19 school year, according to results of a state audit released Thursday.

Wenatchee School District Accountability Audit Report.pdf

The WVTSC is a regional career and technical education partnership for high school students and is hosted by the Wenatchee School District. Its members include Cascade, Cashmere, Eastmont, Entiat, Lake Chelan, Manson, Pateros, Quincy and Waterville school districts.

The center’s administrative council, tasked with adopting policies and overseeing the operation, is supposed to include each school superintendent in the cooperative, along with three to five community members, an organized labor representative, the skills center director and superintendent of the host school district.

The audit, covering the period from Sept. 2, 2018, to Aug. 31, 2019, found:

  • No meetings were held during the school year that included a quorum of members.
  • The required yearly meeting schedule was never established.
  • The center’s financial plan for the year was not reviewed.
  • Two special meetings that were held during that time were not posted as required by the Open Public Meetings Act and it’s uncertain if invitations were extended to members.
  • One school district was not involved at all on the council.
  • Another school district was represented by a high school principal and a local community member, which is not authorized by state law.
  • Only one community member was included on the council, when the agreement called for three-to-five community members.

The concern, according to the state audit report, is:

  • An increased risk that members would not be informed about the business and operations of the skills center, which would lead to uninformed decisions about how the center is operated.
  • Open Public Meetings Act violations could invalidate final actions taken during the council meetings that were held.

In Thursday’s report, the auditor recommended training for council members and bringing the bylaws into compliance with the state regulations for membership.

The Wenatchee School District’s response included in the audit report is that the administrative council and management did not “have a comprehensive understanding of applicable state laws, regulations and its own cooperative agreement and bylaws.”

The Wenatchee School District and Wenatchee Valley Technical Skills Center acknowledged the problems in a written response included in the audit report.

“Effective controls were not in place to comply with state laws, regulations, and its own cooperative agreement and bylaws,” the district stated. “WVTSC will establish controls to rectify the identified issues, including training and revisions of the existing cooperative agreement and bylaws by Aug. 31, 2020.”

Further details on when and how the district first knew about the problems and specific steps being taken to resolve the issues were not yet available at press time.

In January 2019, the tech center was struggling with an unexpected drop in enrollment — about 50 part-time (25 full-time equivalent) students fewer than anticipated. That put it on track to post a $230,000 budget deficit in the 2018-19 school year.

Students attend their own high school half the day and the center the other half, learning a trade or career skills in specialized training programs that include:

  • Automotive technology
  • Digital media arts
  • Collision repair technology
  • Construction trades
  • Cosmetology
  • Criminal justice/police science
  • Culinary arts
  • Fire science
  • Video game design and programming

The enrollment decline coincided that year with an increase in expenditures, including about $38,000 more in Wenatchee School District-wide staff salary and benefit increases.

That also was the year when school districts regionwide were facing budget gaps, in part due to changes in the state’s education funding formula.

The Wenatchee School District embarked on a recruitment effort to prevent having to make program cuts.

Enrollment as of February this year showed the skills center was running about 28 full-time equivalent students ahead of what was budgeted — and 40 more than the previous year, with enrollment numbers higher than any in the past seven years.

Seattle drops out of top 5 for growth among major U.S. cities

SEATTLE — Seattle’s decade of mind-boggling growth ended not with a bang, but with a whimper.

OK, maybe “whimper” is overstating it, but population data for 2019 released Thursday by the U.S. Census Bureau shows the city recorded its slowest growth rate of the decade last year.

From July 1, 2018, to July 1, 2019, Seattle had a net gain of about 11,400 people, reaching a total population of 753,700. That pencils out to a 1.5% growth rate, a far cry from the peak year of 2016 when we grew by 3.2%, and added more than 22,000 residents.

After six consecutive years in the top 2 for growth among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities — that includes a No. 1 showing in 2013 — Seattle dropped to sixth place in 2019.

For those Seattleites who feel the city’s been growing at much too fast a pace, this news should come as a welcome relief. For growth-loving urbanists, though, maybe it’s a bit of a downer.

Of course, the new census numbers capture a period before we were hit with the COVID-19 virus and the ensuing economic shutdown. We’ll have to wait until next year’s data release to see what kind of effect that crisis has had on the city’s growth.

Seattle is not the only city to see things cool off a bit in 2019. Census data shows that overall, growth is down sharply among major U.S. cities over the past couple years. This slowdown is evident in most of Seattle’s peer cities, including San Francisco, Portland, Denver, Boston, Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas.

The data suggests that the much-touted urban renaissance of the 2010s, which was fueled by a newfound love of city living among millennials and empty-nesters, could be waning. Most likely, the steep cost of living in these cities has made the higher growth rates unsustainable.

In 2019, Mesa, Arizona (population 518,000) ranked No. 1 for growth among the 50 most-populous U.S. cities, for the first time. It grew by 2%, which is a modest number compared with the top-ranking cities of previous years. In fact, Mesa is the slowest No. 1 of the decade.

In terms of numeric growth, another Arizona city holds the top spot: Phoenix, with a net increase of about 26,300 people. That brings the city’s total population to 1.68 million. The nation’s largest city, New York (population 8.34 million), had the biggest numeric decline in 2019, shrinking by 53,300.

Even if Seattle’s population growth last year was slightly anemic, we still amassed a net increase of 145,000 people over the course of the decade. That adds up to a remarkable 23.8% growth rate.

And with that, it’s official: Seattle ranks as the fastest-growing major city of the 2010s. We handily beat two Texas cities for that distinction — Fort Worth and Austin — which tied for second with 22.1% growth for the decade.

Seattle remains the 18th most-populous U.S. city, behind Indianapolis and ahead of Denver.

While Seattle’s growth is cooling off, Redmond’s is not. Last year, Microsoft’s hometown grew by a whopping 6.7%. That ranks Redmond as the 10th fastest-growing city in the country for 2019, among those with a population of 50,000 or higher.

Washington has 25 cities with a population of at least 50,000. Only three lost population last year, and all are in King County: Federal Way, Auburn and Burien.

Like Seattle, Bellevue’s rate of growth has slowed down recently. At just 0.7%, last year was just the first time this decade that King County’s second-largest city dipped below a 1% growth rate. Bellevue’s population stands at 148,200.

Seattle remains, of course, the state’s largest city. Spokane is still No. 2 in the state, and just slightly larger than Tacoma. Vancouver and Bellevue round out the top five, in that order.

Just as Seattle is perennially Washington’s biggest city, the state’s smallest town also has no real competition. But unlike Seattle, little Krupp in Grant County had something of a population boom in 2019. After plateauing at 50 for five consecutive years, the town’s population suddenly jumped to 52.

That’s a 4% rate of growth for the year, more than twice as high as Seattle’s.