Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

Through the end of March and April, many businesses closed under state orders, leaving Ithacans unemployed.

June 17, 2020

Unemployment in Tompkins County Skyrockets to Record Highs in April and Beyond

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Even Tompkins County’s history of near-full employment can’t spare it from the shutdowns and ensuing recession that have put millions out of work.

Between March and April, unemployment rates in Tompkins County jumped from 3.5 percent to 10.1 percent — the biggest reported increase in a single month in the county since at least 1990, according to the New York State Department of Labor.

Historically, the county has had a uniquely low unemployment rate compared to the rest of the state. April’s unemployment rate reached a record high in the past three decades, with the second highest month reported in June 2012, at 7.3 percent. The labor department has not yet released the same full data for May or June.

Unemployment includes people who are looking for work but have not worked over a given period of time, explained Prof. Ian Greer M.S. ’03 Ph.D. ’05, industrial and labor relations.

But that measure excludes people who have stopped looking for work because they don’t believe they can find work, meaning the unemployment rate might significantly understate the true scope of job losses.

“In the current pandemic, that is a big group,” Greer said. “They had a job, and they lost it, but they can’t look for a new one because they’re looking after their kids, or sick, or looking after their elderly parents.”

While Greer acknowledged the limitations of the unemployment rate — how it doesn’t include the underemployed or discouraged workers — he pointed to the weekly initial unemployment claims reports from the labor department as one way to understand the current economic climate in Tompkins County.

In the last week of March, 1,486 people filed for unemployment benefits in Tompkins County. The same week in 2019, only 25 people did — an increase of 5,844 percent.

And in context with the rest of the state, Ithaca’s numbers are even more stark.

“Ithaca has had the strongest record in upstate New York in terms of job creation,” said Greer, who also teaches a School of Industrial and Labor Relations class on unemployment.

Most cities in upstate New York have seen the number of jobs fluctuate with the business cycle. In Ithaca, they’ve gone up consistently, regardless of the broader economy’s health. While nearby cities of Elmira and Binghamton have often reported job decreases, Greer said, Ithaca has bucked the trend as one of upstate New York’s few economic bright spots.

Tompkins County’s unemployment claims statistic — comparing the week of March 28, 2020 to March 28, 2019 — was the second highest percent change for any county in New York.

The following weeks have also seen Tompkins County at the top: The last reported week, which ended June 6, placed Tompkins County at the third-highest increase. That week, 289 people claimed unemployment.

“Tompkins County was just way off the charts,” Greer said, “even by the standard of the current crazy recession.”

Greer explained that not only does Tompkins County’s historically low unemployment rate play a role in the staggering numbers, but the absence of students from a college-reliant economy has only exacerbated the massive decline.

“The students left, and [they] just amount to a much bigger share of economic activity in our county,” Greer said. “There’s nothing comparable elsewhere in New York State — a single sector that suddenly shuts down. It’s not just people on campus who lose their jobs, but it’s everything that surrounds the university economy.”

According to a special tabulation of 2000 Census data, in Tompkins County there were 27,205 college students out of a total population of 96,500.

“There’s no county [in New York] that’s as dependent on colleges as Tompkins County,” Greer said. “Most big universities are in cities, where there are other industries.”

“But the devastation [in Ithaca] is just going to continue, if students don’t return in the fall,” he said.