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Alaska unemployment insurance claims are low despite job losses

  • Author: Annie Zak
  • Updated: August 10, 2017
  • Published August 10, 2017

Though Alaska is grappling with a recession, unemployment insurance claims here remain at low levels.

For this time of the year, in fact, unemployment insurance claims are among the lowest they have ever been despite job losses across the economy.

"Claims levels are just incredibly low," said Lennon Weller, an economist at the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development. It's the result of multiple factors, he said, which might include retirement, attrition, a strong tourism season, a big fish harvest in Bristol Bay and migration out of the state. "It's something we haven't seen in past downturns."

Initial claims for unemployment insurance are "substantially lower than the state's 10-year average," according to an economic trends report put out this month by Alaska's labor department. Data from the state show an insured unemployment rate of 2.76 percent in mid-July. That figure measures the number of people collecting unemployment benefits as a percentage of those who are covered by the unemployment program. That program includes most workers in the state.

"That might reflect fewer-than-normal layoffs in recent weeks, but because initial claims have been low throughout the state's current recession, it might also mean people aren't filing for unemployment insurance, despite losing their jobs," the report said. That could be because people are finding other jobs in Alaska, or finding work in other states and moving elsewhere.

Alaska's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate was 6.8 percent in June, the highest in the country.

While initial claim filings were up about 4 percent between June 2016 and June of this year, Weller called that uptick "not very significant." Along with that, continued filings and the actual count of people claiming unemployment were down 18 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

"The continued filings — a big piece of that story is fewer individuals over the year filing, mostly because we're comparing it to some elevated claims that were happening a year ago," he said.

The number of people who collected unemployment insurance benefits in Alaska did go up last year, Alaska Dispatch News reported in April. The labor department said at the time that a rise in oil and gas sector claims in 2016 appeared to be subsiding.

In 2016, Alaska lost roughly 6,500 jobs, the first net job loss in the state since 2009. Jobs in the oil and gas sector plummeted 20 percent. The state is forecast to lose about 7,500 jobs in 2017, the labor department said earlier this year.

Top state economists have called Alaska's recession, which began in late 2015, "moderate." Unemployment insurance claims are one of many measures that factor into the overall health of the economy.

It's typical for unemployment claims to follow a cyclical pattern, said Patsy Westcott, chief of the unemployment insurance program in Alaska. That pattern goes down in the summer, and starts to go up in the fall and winter. Nationally, she said, the unemployment insurance workload has decreased since the Great Recession.

"While our workload is a little smaller than it has been, it's pretty normal for us," she said.

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