The number of employed Montanans hit an all time high in June, as did the labor force, the Governor’s Office announced Friday, citing the state Department of Labor and Industry and U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“More Montanans are working than ever before, and our expanding workforce is helping job creators fill key positions across the state. Montana workers continue to benefit from strong private sector job growth,” Gov. Greg Gianforte said in a statement.
In a news release, the Governor’s Office touted growth in payroll employment and a recovery of jobs lost at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. The news release noted a “slight uptick” in unemployment to 2.6 percent but noted the rate was still the third lowest ever recorded in Montana.
However, the labor data comes as food pantries across the state see double digit increases in visits by households, and women, especially with children, still struggle to return to work.
“There are so many nuanced issues around sustainability for households, and having a job or having three jobs doesn’t always mean that people are OK,” said Stephanie Staley, chief programs officer for the Montana Food Bank Network.
Labor update for June
In March 2020, the pandemic hit Montana, and a stay-at-home order from the previous governor temporarily shuttered the state, and unemployment claims spiked.
Since then, the Governor’s Office said the number of employed Montanans grew in June for the 26th consecutive month to hit the new record.
The largest gains in payroll employment in the private sector were in healthcare, accommodation and food service, according to the Governor’s Office. The news release said payroll employment grew by 4,400 jobs in June, and the same month, 1,095 jobs were created.
Jessica Nelson, with the Department of Labor and Industry, said total employment includes people who are self-employed, and in Montana, that’s a large number of farm employees. Payroll jobs count only “W-2 wage earning employees.”
“Both are good measures of ‘job creation,’” Nelson wrote in an email. “The benefit of the payroll data to us is that it enables us to get into a little bit more detail of what kind of jobs are being created.”
The labor update from the Governor’s Office noted 550,112 Montanans were working in June and said the state has recovered 146 percent of the jobs lost at the start of the pandemic. The Governor’s Office also noted the labor force added 1,789 workers in June for a new record of 564,537.
Unemployment bumped up 0.2 percent to 2.6 percent, but it was still lower than the rate for the U.S. economy at 3.6 percent in June, the Governor’s Office said.
The update noted difficulties in the economy as well but blamed those on the federal government. Inflation has shot up 9.1 percent in the last year, gas prices are up nearly 60 percent, and grocery prices are up 12.2 percent, according to data from the Governor’s Office.
“Our economy continues to show strong signs of job growth, but with the federal government’s out-of-control spending, Montanans are paying higher prices for gas and groceries as inflation reached its highest level in 41 years,” said Gianforte, a Republican, in the statement.
An analysis of inflation earlier this year by 538 noted government spending, such as the American Rescue Plan, has contributed to inflation pressure. The data analysis and forecasting hub also said stimulus checks to Americans played a role but some support was likely necessary for the economy at the time.
However, 538 said gas prices have more to do with the global oil market, and other economists point to the war in the Ukraine as a factor that’s driving up costs as well.
Other economic impacts
Despite the workforce growth in Montana, some groups still face hardships.
Those likely include people with disabilities, those who are elderly, their caretakers, and people who take care of children, said Staley, based on her observations from the Food Bank Network.
In the last six months, the Network has seen a 28 percent increase in households seeking food assistance through pantries, she said. Staley said rent payments and car payments are fixed, but food is a more fluid cost, so people pull from their food budgets to cover other expenses.
“You can be gainfully employed at a low wage and still need to visit a food bank,” Staley said.
The increases in food bank visits are widespread across the state, she said, but they are especially high in rural areas and on Native American reservations.
The Network distributes food to 340 partners including pantries, schools and senior centers across the state, and she said these days, its warehouse is nearly depleted after every ordering cycle.
“That’s never really been the case before,” Staley said. “We’ve always been able to maintain some decent inventory.”
Amanda Dawsey, an economist and faculty member at the University of Montana, said women in particular still face a lot of uncertainty with childcare and have struggled to return to the workforce.
An analysis by Stateline, an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts, said in May the number of women with jobs was higher than at any time since the pandemic began but still lower than before March 2020.
“During the early months of the pandemic, women lost 1.7 million more jobs than men,” the story said.
An estimate in January by the Montana Department of Labor and Industry of labor participation rates based on gender showed more men participating overall but more women returning to work since the pandemic. Updated data on the rates of participation by gender were not immediately available Friday.
However, the availability of child care affects the economy. In May 2021, the Montana Budget and Policy Center’s KIDS COUNT estimated Montana businesses lose $55 million and parents miss out on $145 million in wages because of inadequate child care.
Earlier this year, the Governor’s Office announced the state would invest $7 million from the American Rescue Plan for child care workers on top of $61 million of federal aid the previous year.
Dawsey, chair of Economics at UM, said unpredictability of any kind prevents people from making long-term commitments that are helpful for their household’s well-being. For women in particular, she said lack of child care continues to create uncertainty about their return to work, as do questions around control over their own fertility.
“That raises a question of inequity,” Dawsey said.
In Montana, women earn 77.8 cents for every dollar a man earns, according to 2021 data from the National Women’s Law Center. The center said a Native American woman in Montana earns 61.5 cents compared to a white man.
Although wages generally are going up, Dawsey said they have not kept up with cost increases. For example, she said the median prices of homes, especially in Montana cities, have been skyrocketing compared to growth in income.
She also said people need to receive the full economic picture in order for policies that address problems such as the lack of child care and basic food assistance to get off the ground.
“Cleary people are struggling. Clearly people are struggling just to maintain a standard of living,” Dawsey said.