Illustration depicting a maze on a purple background with a symbol of justice, loan paperwork, a house, cap and diploma within the center of certain parts of the maze. A Black-presenting mother and daughter with blue surgical face masks look down disheartened.

Unemployment Data Shows Unequal Recovery, Galvanizes South End Equity Efforts

by Alexa Peters

Recovery in south King County has not kept up with north King County and preexisting economic disparities between the two regions were exacerbated by the pandemic, a recent Economic Security Department (ESD) report said.

The August ESD report showed evidence of an ongoing economic recovery in King County, including an unemployment rate much lower than in other counties at 4.8%, suggesting that King County’s recovery has been the swiftest in the state. That said, data at the city level shows a different picture.

In January 2020, the highest unemployment rate among Auburn, Kirkland, Redmond, and Renton was 3.4% in Auburn, and the lowest was 2.1% in Redmond.

“While the relative positions of these four communities persisted throughout the pandemic, the gap over time has widened,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist for the ESD. “All four communities are worse off today than they were before the pandemic, but it is taking longer for the South End communities to recover.”

Historically, at the sub-county level, regional economists tend to see higher unemployment rates in south King County than in north King County, which Vance-Sherman attributes to where the workers live and what industries they work in.

For instance, tech industry jobs — some of the least impacted by the pandemic and the most able to transition to remote work — are clustered in north King County. For that reason, these industries most often employ North Enders, making the cost of living in the north much higher, preventing those in low-wage, high-turnover jobs from living there, and keeping the unemployment rates in the north consistently low. Meanwhile, due to the lower cost of living in the South End, residents of south King County tend to work in low-paying industries like service, hospitality, and manufacturing — industries that also happen to be hit hardest by the pandemic.

But, this high-level analysis of unemployment doesn’t look at barriers of systemic poverty that have disproportionately affected and slowed recovery in south King County, which also has a higher POC population than the north. For instance, barriers to childcare, higher education, health inequities, transportation, and even broadband internet, keep South End residents from not only reentering the workforce, but from attaining the sort of jobs that could afford them more economic resilience.

“South King County has a lot of hospitality and leisure, retail industry positions, and certainly one of the things that we saw as we started to recover from the pandemic is that the demand for hospitality was even increased but getting the workforce to come back, to meet that demand, has definitely been a challenge,” said Andrea Reay, president and CEO of Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, an organization dedicated to advocating for the south King County economy. “A big concern is lack of childcare. One of the areas that the Chamber’s focused on is how do we level up and create more daycare businesses so that people can go back to work?” 

According to one recent CNBC article, this is a nationwide issue. According to the piece, a September 2021 jobs report showed Black unemployment falling at a sharper clip than that of white, Asian, and Hispanic workers, but this change was misleading, according to economists, because the “shrinking Black labor force suggests the improved unemployment picture for Black Americans” but really “can be attributed partially to job seekers exiting the labor force rather than an indication of longer-term recovery.”

As William Rodgers, director of the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s Institute for Economic Equity, told CNBC, “You have a set of people who are benefiting and being drawn into the economy and finding opportunity, but then you have another set of people who face barriers, hurdles, constraints that are putting them in positions to where they are leaving the labor force.”

Several organizations like the Southside Chamber specifically worked to address these barriers to employment during the pandemic. Since their founding in 1988, the Chamber has partnered with local high schools and community colleges to provide youth and young adults with the support they need to land family-wage jobs in the area. They doubled the number of students in their high school education workforce program during the pandemic, and Reay says she hopes the program will only continue to grow.

“The truth is there are so many amazing opportunities available right here at home. They just need help connecting to those opportunities,” said Reay. “Things like building and construction trades, logistics, port-related industries, advanced manufacturing. These are great jobs that often are making over $100,000 a year, and youth can get into apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs oftentimes while they are still in high school.”

As a major employer of South End residents, particularly through their operations at Sea-Tac airport, the Port of Seattle has also sought to address barriers to an equitable recovery in King County with several programs.

One such program is the South King County Fund Economic Recovery Program, which was originally a $10 million fund established with a focus on environmental impact in south King County but has since been expanded to address the economic impact of the pandemic on young people without college degrees in the airport communities. South Enders can apply for assistance through the Port’s website.

“By March of 2020, people with less than a college degree were the first to be laid off,” said Bookda Gheisar, senior director of the Office of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion at Port of Seattle. “So we really focused, through both the Youth Opportunity Initiative and the South King County Fund, [on creating] pathways to job training and programs [for] those populations in the airport communities.”

The Port also uses a priority hire program to draw from underserved communities for labor and construction jobs, which creates more work for immigrants and Youth of Color. They’ve also begun to offer “wraparound services,” for the construction trades, including assistance with childcare and transportation, while apprentices and pre-apprentices are on job sites.

“Everything we do is examined through the lens of equity,” said Port Commissioner Peter Steinbrueck. “We are centering equity in a way that is more determined and more comprehensive than ever before at the Port. We’re not turning back on this. It takes time though. Things don’t happen overnight.”

The Southside Chamber and the Port were involved in the Puget Sound Regional Council’s draft of the 2021 Regional Economic Strategy that was released for public comment last week, which specifically addresses strategies the region hopes to take in fostering an equitable economic recovery for King County post-pandemic. With that in mind, this new ESD data necessarily doesn’t dishearten Steinbrueck, Gheisar, or Reay, but it does make them more determined than ever to dive into the equitable recovery strategies they’ve implemented and planned.

“I am not disheartened,” said Reay. “What I am is galvanized and enthusiastic about the opportunity and the progress that we can make, if we can all come together as a community and support the work to make a difference.”

Alexa Peters is a freelance journalist and copywriter living in the Seattle area. Her work has appeared in The Seattle Times, The Washington Post, Leafly, Downbeat Magazine, Healthline, and more. Her Twitter is @ItsAllWriteByMe and her Instagram is @AlexaPetersWrites.

🎨 Featured illustration by Vladimir Verano.

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