BEMIDJI -- The unemployment rate locally and statewide are inching back to normality after a volatile 2020.

According to the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, the unemployment rate for the state fell slightly from 4.5% in November to 4.4% in December. Regionally, the Beltrami County unemployment rate finished the year at 5%, up from 4.4% in November.

Beltrami County's December rate of 5% is the same as it was in 2019, and the November rate of 4.4% is just slightly above the 4.1% in November 2019. The county's unemployment rate has gone down over the year after hitting 9.1% at the height of the coronavirus pandemic.

The number was Beltrami's highest unemployment rate since March 2011, when it reached 9.6%. Before 2011, the rate also rose above 9% at the height of the Great Recession, reaching 10.2% in February 2009.

Despite both periods having high unemployment rates, though, Dave Hengel, executive director at Greater Bemidji Economic Development, said 2020 was unlike the years after the 2008 crisis.

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"This isn't a typical recession," Hengel said. "I think it's a pause, not a recession. This isn't like 2008, when enormous numbers of jobs were lost. You also have to factor in that 2019 was very strong economically for our region. The big question is for 2021, when all the stimulus is gone, what will it look like and where will we go. I'm pretty confident that we'll have a pretty quick recovery, and once the vaccines gets out, we can get back to normal."

Jobs lost and recovered

During the peak of the pandemic, Hengel said about 600 jobs were lost in the area, which have gradually been added back as the hospitality industry has reopened. Hengel noted that the job losses varied, depending on which trade they were in.

"It speaks a bit to the uncertainty with the coronavirus and our recovery from it," Hengel said. "Some industries still had a good 2020, whether it was manufacturing or retail, while others have been deeply affected, which includes the hotels and other hospitality services."

For the northwest Minnesota region, DEED Regional Analyst Carson Gorecki said between quarter three of 2019 and quarter three of 2020, there were 13,400 jobs lost across all industries.

"Leisure and hospitality had the largest losses across the board," Gorecki said. "In northwest Minnesota, you saw declines of nearly 30% from quarter one into quarter two in accommodation, food service, art, entertainment and recreation industries. Those usually see large increases from quarter one into quarter two."

Gorecki also said there was a decline in forestry between quarter one and quarter two of about 16%. Since then, nearly 75% of those have returned.

Across the state as a whole, the unemployment rate reached a high of 9.4%. The current rate of 4.4%, Gorecki said, is a mix of people returning to work and individuals leaving the labor force.

"There's been a noted decline in the labor force over the year," Gorecki said. "The labor force includes either people who are employed or actively looking for work. In general, across the state, people have been leaving the labor force at a higher rate than they were before. Either they don't want to look right now, or they're retiring. We're waiting to see, with the vaccines coming out, whether a lot of those people return and only temporarily left the labor force."

Despite the economic issues of the past year, Gorecki said the problems were curbed somewhat because of assistance programs from the state and federal governments.

"The number of businesses we keep track of in our data actually increased over the year from 2019," Gorecki said. "There's a lag on whether we'll see some of those decline in the next couple of quarters. But I think it's pretty telling, considering how many businesses were impacted. We didn't see a decline in those hard hit sectors, so I think the assistance definitely played a role."

In addition to government stimulus programs, Hengel said local efforts were also integral to preserving businesses and workers.

"I'm super proud of what our community has done, with the work put in by our county, city and other organizations," Hengel said. "I think we lost one or two businesses in total, that I'm aware of. Even the state DEED commissioner was surprised by that in conversations. I think that's not just because of the state and federal money, but the fact that our region had those key programs. All of those added up, and showed what makes Bemidji special."