Friday, January 19, 2018

Big Horn County unemployment spikes to 13.3 percent

Of Montana’s 56 counties, Big Horn County is ranked last for employment, and may have trouble getting to No. 55.
In the time between March and June of this year, the local unemployment rate has gone up 2 percentage points – from 11.3 to 13.3 percent. This is a significant difference compared to last summer, when the July 2016 rate was more than two-fifths smaller at 7.4 percent. 
Glacier County takes the next highest unemployment rate for June at 8.8 percent, one-third smaller than Big Horn County’s.
The average rate of unemployment in Montana as a whole for March was 3.8 percent, rising to 3.9 by June.
According to Barbara Wagner, chief economist for the Montana Department of Labor and Industry, Big Horn County is less predictable than the rest of the state.
“Normally, this time of the year we would expect the unemployment rate to [go] down a little bit,” she said. “But Big Horn County is not as seasonal as the rest of the state.”
This high unemployment rate might be attributed to the layoffs in the various local coal mines, such as the Decker, Spring Creek and Absaloka mines.
Some people believe the coal mines are struggling due to the availability and low price of natural gas. But others, such as County Commissioner Chad Fenner, believe the current challenges stem from greenhouse gas regulations found in former President Barack Obama’s Clean Power Plan.
“They’re down, especially the production,” he said of the mines. “They’re six million tons short from last year.”
Despite the high unemployment rates in Big Horn County, the number of people in the workforce rose by nearly 150, from 5,114 to 5,263 from April to June. This increase may have been influenced by the recent opening of Love’s Travel Stop in Hardin, or the seasonal laborers who work for farmers during the summer. Chief Economist Wagner can’t say for certain.
“We probably need to get more data before we understand why the model is showing such large gains in the labor force instead of declines in employment,” she said. “It’s possible that it’s just an error. It may also be possible that there are enough new jobs being created that it is keeping employment balanced.”
A meeting took place July 19 at the Governor’s Office between Crow Tribal Chairman A.J. Not Afraid and new Chief Business Development Officer Ken Fichtler. The purpose of the meeting was to introduce Fichtler and new Director of the Department of Commerce Pam Haxby-Cote. Fichtler hopes to see the Crow Tribe develop a more diversified labor force in the future.
The Crow Tribe currently has the highest unemployment rate of all Montana tribes at 19.4 percent, up from 18.1 in March. The Northern Cheyenne were the runners up at 13.6 percent, down from 14.6 in March.
“We’re definitely aware of the challenges in the area,” Fichtler said. “We’re working diligently with the tribe to address them.”
Even with high unemployment rates of certain counties across the state, Gov. Steve Bullock announced that the state unemployment rate remains at the “ideal,” 3.9 percent. Montana and Wyoming are tied for the 22nd highest employment rate.
“Montana’s economy continues to grow and diversify, and more Main Street businesses are expanding and hiring more workers,” Bullock stated. “As summer kicks into high gear, we are continuing to find new ways to ensure Montana businesses have a steady pipeline of skilled workers to fill good-paying jobs.”