The leisure and hospitality industry continues to suffer the most among area economic sectors, according to Adam Jones, regional economist with the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
The latest unemployment figures recently released by the N.C. Department of Commerce show that the leisure and hospitality sector in the Wilmington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) continues to be the hardest hit. Jobs in the sector were down 14.5% year over year in January.
"It's the majority of the jobs that are missing. ... half of the job losses are in that sector still," Jones said Monday. "They are the industry most affected by the ongoing public health crisis."
Jones, however, said that he expects the industry could start seeing some recovery by July.
"I think there is a lot of pent-up demand and I think that people are sittings on savings and they're just itching to go ... And the vaccines have just started," Jones said. "I expect people to come back. I expect that [people] will vacation here. I think that indoor dining may be a little slower to recover just because we're waiting on people to get comfortable with it, but I don't think that'll take too long either."
While this particular sector is still very much struggling, there is a bit of recovery happening overall in New Hanover and Pender counties, he said.
New Hanover and Pender counties had a 5.5% unemployment rate in January. That's up from 3.4% in New Hanover and 3.8% in Pender County for the same month the previous year, according to the N.C. Department of Commerce.
January, however, was down from December, which saw a 5.6% unemployment rate for both counties.
Brunswick County’s unemployment rate rose slightly from 7.5% in December to 7.7% in January. In January 2020, the county had a 5.6% unemployment rate.
There is still some ways to go before the area makes a full recovery, Jones said, and it could be another year before it starts trending toward full employment numbers again.
"Do we consider ourselves recovered because we are back down to 5.5%. I would say, 'No.' And part of that reason is, we are still missing people in the labor force," he said, adding that there are still many people not looking for work who are not counted in the unemployment figures.
"The labor force is the number of people who are either employed or looking for work," he said. "New Hanover County is still down about 4,000 people in the labor force."
Those individuals are not counted in the statistics, he said, adding that the actual figures would be somewhat higher if they were counted.
That's because individuals have "figured out a way to make it on benefits and stimulus checks that have been sent out."
The federal government is already sending out the most recent stimulus funds through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, a $1.9 trillion economic stimulus bill. Unemployment benefits were also extended until Sept. 6 for $300 a week. It also extended eligibility for unemployment insurance and provided guidance on tax exemptions for unemployment insurance.
"I think another reason is, there are a lot of places that are not running full speed yet. So their marginal employees that have not been hired back don't see a whole lot of opportunities just yet," Jones said.
"As the vaccinations come, we should see the economy return with it," he added.