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Tourism businesses, restaurants saw 50% job losses in early April in Montana
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Tourism businesses, restaurants saw 50% job losses in early April in Montana

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Montana’s largest cities shed more than half of their leisure and hospitality jobs during April, according to metropolitan-level employment data released Wednesday.

Hotels, restaurants, arts, entertainment and recreation businesses are counted in the broad leisure and hospitality supersector. The report for Billings, Missoula and Great Falls offers the first look at city-level jobs data for Montana’s designated “metropolitan” areas.

The current employment survey by the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics was taken two weeks into Gov. Steve Bullock’s stay-at-home order to stem the pandemic. Non-essential businesses were also ordered closed. The order was lifted, with restrictions, April 26. There were job losses in almost every sector.

“It you look at all those sectors, there’s a whole lot of minus signs there, but this particular decline is concentrated in retail trade and the tourist industry,” said Paul Polzin, director emeritus at the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana.

The report shows the beginning of a downturn unlike the Great Recession in which construction and timber products took the biggest early hit. The state's unemployment rate was 10.5% on May 16. 

Leisure and hospitality jobs statewide were down 33,500 from the previous April in the not-seasonally-adjusted report, which didn't offer a good previous month comparison.

In Billings, there were 6,100 fewer jobs in leisure and hospitality in April of this year, compared the same month last year. The decline was 50.8%. Missoula’s job losses in the sector numbered, 4,400 compared to April 2019, a loss of 53.6%. Great Falls experienced a similar loss percentage, a 52% drop in leisure and hospitality that translated into 2,100 fewer jobs.

The reported losses in arts and entertainment reflected what businesses told Lee Montana Newspapers over the past two months as event cancellations and social distancing took a toll.

There were some sectors that seemed to be primed for the higher job losses on future reports. The health industry was likely just seeing losses related to the suspension of elective surgeries at most facilities, a move suggested by the Montana Hospital Association on March 26. MHA didn’t recommend elective surgeries resume until April 22.

There were some early suspensions of elective surgeries and late returns. Providence St. Patrick Hospital in Missoula began suspending surgeries March 18.

In Billings, elective surgeries didn’t resume until the week of April 27.

One of the most publicized instances of hospital job losses occurred in mid-April when Kalispell Regional Hospital announced layoff and pay cuts affecting 600 workers.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a second shoe dropping in health care and social assistance. This also probably true for Billings Clinic, St. Vincent and Benefis up in Great Falls,” Polzin said.

There were a few employment gains in the report of otherwise negative job numbers. In Missoula, professional and business services saw an employment increase of 1.4%. It was Missoula’s only non-government source of employment growth. There weren’t any non-government job growth sectors in Billings or Great Falls.

Polzin said high-tech was the likely source of job growth in Missoula. There was no city-level data for Bozeman, which is Montana’s strongest high-tech economy.

Other job sectors reporting high job losses April 10 included non-durable goods, down 1,800 jobs from the same month a year earlier. The category includes craft brewers, Polzin said, which was a likely source for the loss of 20.9%.

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