Pandemic unemployment in the Tri-State was worse than the Great Recession. But here's the good news

'We're almost back to where we were'
Posted at 5:00 AM, Jun 03, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-03 18:54:06-04

CINCINNATI — Sarah Hess is a flow arts performer at the Ohio Renaissance Festival. Like thousands in the Tri-State area, she filed for unemployment last year.

WCPO first talked to Hess in February, when her Ohio unemployment benefits stopped coming after a false report of fraud.

"No, there's no fraud," she said. "All the shows are canceled."

After Courtney Francisco's story and work with the state unemployment office, Hess' case was cleared up and the checks continued.

"I was very different a year ago," said Hess when we checked back in with her. "It was hard. It was probably one of the hardest years I've ever had."

To Hess' surprise, things started looking up again more quickly than she expected.

"I knew it takes some time," said Hess, from her new home in central Kentucky. "I was hoping to be back like in a good place and like within four to six months, and right now it's the six-month mark and it's going way better than I planned."

Data show how quickly the pandemic lockdowns and restrictions changed the Tri-State's unemployment situation, and how quickly it is recovering. It's unlike any other time in modern history.

WCPO used data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics to understand where our local economy was before the pandemic, what it looked like during the pandemic, and how it's changing as things return to a semblance of normal.

"The data tell a pretty compelling story, especially in the context to something like the Great Recession," said Chris Nicak, director of research at UC's Economics Center. "Nationally, unemployment exceeded 16 percent at the peak of the pandemic; whereas the Great Recession, unemployment was 10-11 percent."

The Cincinnati metro area fared slightly better than Ohio as a whole, hitting a peak unemployment rate of 13.6 percent in April 2020 compared to the state's 16.4 percent.

"The interesting thing is how fast of a recovery we're experiencing," Nicak added. "Nationally, unemployment, labor force participation, GDP took 3 to 5 years to get back to pre-recession levels. Whereas, post-pandemic, we're almost back to where we were."

Data show unemployment in the Tri-State was at 4.1 percent in February 2020 and returned to 4.2 percent in March 2021, a period of 11 months.

Comparatively, it took 63 months to return to a 4.2 percent unemployment rate after the Great Recession high of 11.2 percent in January 2010.

"Trying to forecast what's going to happen in an unprecedented economy was really challenging," Nicak said. "We saw a lot of people early on in the pandemic think this was going to be four weeks, maybe six weeks, max."

Trying to predict what happens next is proving equally difficult, with what Nicak describes as a "K-shaped" recovery.

"We're seeing some people are doing better off than they were pre-pandemic, while others are still suffering, trying to find work," he said. "There certainly will be some economic aftershocks looking forward for the next few years."