Wisconsin’s Unemployment Rate Rises Slightly In December To 5.5 Percent

State Adds 15K Jobs, But Jobs Cut In State, Local Government

People at jobs fair
In this Tuesday, July 10, 2012 photo, people walk by the recruiters at a jobs fair in the Pittsburgh suburb of Green Tree, Pa. Keith Srakocic/AP Photo

Wisconsin’s unemployment rate ticked slightly up to 5.5 percent in December, according to data compiled by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and released Thursday by the state Department of Workforce Development (DWD).

That’s slightly worse than November, when Wisconsin’s revised unemployment rate was 5.3 percent.

But Wisconsin’s jobs numbers remain better than the U.S. unemployment rate, which sat at 6.7 percent in November, and has seen little improvement since October.

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The state’s unemployment rate is also only two percentage points off from the 3.5 percent unemployment rate recorded before the pandemic in February.

In December, the state added just over 15,000 jobs overall, a positive sign after Wisconsin lost more jobs than it gained for two straight months between October and November.

Laura Dresser, a labor economist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said at that hiring pace, it’ll be a long time before Wisconsin makes up the hundreds of thousands of jobs lost in April.

“We need more than a year of growth at this rate just to get back to where we were,” Dresser said. “So it is a significant number of jobs, (but) it isn’t enough to get us out of this hole.”

Both the manufacturing and construction sectors saw positive job growth in December. In fact, despite most industries having fewer jobs than they did in December 2019, the construction industry reported having 3,900 more jobs.

Dennis Winters, chief economist at DWD, said that’s because of the state’s strong housing market, which is being driven by record-low interest rates.

“Housing starts and housing permits are up at levels we haven’t seen … since about 2006 actually,” Winters said.

Some sectors still experienced job losses though, with 4,200 state and local government jobs cut in December, along with 1,500 jobs cut in the restaurant and hospitality industry, according to DWD’s latest report.

At the height of pandemic-related job cuts in April, Wisconsin lost more than 439,000 jobs, a massive level of job losses for a single month. The state was adding many of those jobs back between May and September, but then began losing jobs again in October and November.

The unemployment rate is reported with a month-long lag, so initial weekly applications for unemployment are looked to as a more current barometer of the health of a state’s economy.

That number had been rising since late December, but fell to 17,000 initial applications last week, according to data from DWD. That’s down from nearly 23,000 initial applications filed in the week prior, but still more than double the number of initial claims the department received in the same week in 2020, prior to the pandemic.