South Carolina's economy regained an estimated 27,830 jobs in October, but the state still has 42,000 fewer workers employed than it did at the beginning of March.
The nearly 28,000 residents who returned to work last month is a positive sign for the economy as the state tries to recover from a recession that was brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
That lowered the unemployment rate to 4.2 percent in October from the revised estimate of 5.2 percent for the previous month. The national jobless figure also fell one percentage point over the same period, to 6.9 percent.
Dan Ellzey, director of the S.C. Department of Employment and Workforce, called the latest employment report for the state "remarkable."
“October’s employment situation is a huge stepping stone in the economic recovery process for South Carolina," Ellzey said. "This development indicates a massive shift in South Carolinians going back to work."
The state has continually added jobs every month since May, following Gov. Henry McMaster's orders to remove public health restrictions that were meant to slow the spread of the virus.
South Carolina's economy quickly regained more than 150,000 jobs in May and June. But the pace of that recovery slowed substantially between July and September, when only 37,000 laid-off or furloughed workers returned to work.
The state's unemployment rate continued to drop over the summer months, but that was largely a result of 72,000 people fleeing the workforce, meaning they were no longer actively searching for jobs.
That can happen for a number of reasons, especially during economic downturns. Some people decide to retire earlier. Some return to school to further their education. Some decide to stay home to care for children or elderly parents. Others become so frustrated with their job prospects that they give up looking altogether.
On Friday, Ellzey played up the fact that the number of residents abandoning their search for work slowed in October, noting that about 3,000 dropped out of the active labor force.
"The important part is that these people left the ranks of the unemployed because they got a job, not because they gave up on looking for a job," Ellzey said.
The economic trends may be heading in the right direction, but the results of the monthly employment survey show the state still hasn't recovered all of the jobs it had in March. Many of the major industries in South Carolina are supporting far fewer jobs compared to March.
The trade, transportation and utilities sector is down roughly 10,700 positions, slightly more than the deficit for professional and business services category. Education and health care is down roughly 12,200 jobs. And leisure and hospitality is missing 38,600 positions — or roughly 15 percent of the restaurant, hotel and tourism jobs that existed in March.
One of the few industry categories that gained jobs this year is construction, which is up by about 2,300 positions from in March.
Laura Ullrich, a regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, said South Carolina is still doing better than many other states when it comes to job recovery. The manufacturing sector is still better off than other parts of the country, even though jobs are down year over year.
The same is true for tourism and hospitality, she said. The state is still missing a huge chunk of the jobs that existed in hotels and restaurants, but South Carolina is outpacing other states in that category too.
Many economists, however, believe there is an ongoing risk that the uncontrolled spread of coronavirus this winter could slow or harm the continued economic recovery nationwide.
The number of confirmed coronavirus cases is climbing rapidly all over the United States right now, and South Carolina is no exception. The state is consistently recording more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus per day.
The concern among economists is that spiking case numbers could cut down on consumer spending again, as people choose to stay home instead of spending money at restaurants, stores and other businesses.
Restaurants, hotels and other businesses that require face-to-face interaction are susceptible to seeing another drop in income and employment if the pandemic gets dramatically worse, Ullrich said. But health care jobs could also see drops again if hospitals are forced to cancel elective procedures in order to handle patients with COVID-19.
Several coronavirus vaccines are in the process of being tested and approved by the federal government, but they are unlikely to be widely available for months yet.
"I'm worried that between now and April we could just be in for a tough winter, both in terms of COVID-19 and in terms of possible economic problems," Ullrich said.