While the state unemployment rate fell last year, the economic picture on the Vineyard remains a bit more muddled, with some reporting that workers in this seasonally-driven economy are in a mighty struggle to make ends meet during the winter months.
Statewide, the jobless rate was 7.4 per cent in 2011, according to data released Wednesday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a drop from the 2010 jobless rate of 8.3 per cent for the commonwealth. The news was heralded by the labor bureau in a statement as a “statistically significant unemployment rate change.”
While 2011 data for Dukes County was not available this week, anecdotal evidence from the Vineyard suggests a mixed economic outlook.
According to data released in late January by the state’s executive office of labor and workforce development, the Tisbury labor market area — which includes all six Island towns — had an unemployment rate of 9.3 per cent in December 2011, compared to 10.1 per cent in December 2010. The unemployment rate in November 2011 was 8 per cent.
The area’s unemployment rate in December was still higher than the state average of 6.5 per cent, and the Cape and Islands rate of 8.5 per cent.
Nationwide, the current jobless rate has fallen to the lowest level since 2009, said Chris Wells, president and chief executive officer of Martha’s Vineyard Savings Bank, and the consumer confidence index is at its highest level in a year.
“But I think the economy has a long way to go to improve to pick up the slack created over the last several years,” he said.
Mr. Wells put current off-season Vineyard unemployment levels at about 16 per cent, based on anecdotal and historic evidence. The number is probably closer to 35 per cent in reality, he said, because of a shadow group of unemployed people “who are never really on the books.”
On the Island, there’s “still a high level of unemployment,” he said. “Vineyarders are still cobbling together income between two and three jobs, I believe.” He noted that he hasn’t heard as much hammering around Edgartown, an observation he found worrisome.
And while he said unemployment levels likely haven’t changed dramatically since last year, the economy has improved since winter 2009, when it suffered from bad weather and widespread lack of confidence in the economy.
“Overall, I think two good summers have helped to keep us somewhat stable,” Mr. Wells said.
And with the calender turning into March, the busier summer months are on the horizon. “This is the time of year where people start to decide who they’re going to hire for the summer,” he said, noting that his bank is among the Island employers looking to add to their staff.
Column inches devoted to help wanted ads in the Vineyard Gazette were up in February over last year.
“Locally, I think the warm weather has been good for business,” Mr. Wells said. “People get out of the house more, and when people get out of the house more, they tend to spend more.” He added that more outdoor projects are undertaken in mild weather.
The benefits of warm weather weren’t universal, however. “That’s the only segment that didn’t benefit,” Mr. Wells said. “The snow plowers.”
And rising fuel costs, he said, have negated the savings from reduced heating costs.
Sarah Kuh, program director for Vineyard Health Care Access, said she is still seeing high numbers of people who are unemployed and looking for help with health insurance, unemployment benefits, food stamps and other assistance.
“I wouldn’t say from where we sit, things are looking too rosy,” Ms. Kuh said.
Some people are seeing the “cumulative effects of struggling to make ends meet for, say, two or three years,” she said, and there’s an increase in the number of people who are functionally homeless.
Ms. Kuh said she hasn’t seen the benefits from the milder winter weather. “A lot of our clients are seasonally employed, and I don’t think the weather has improved the fact that the businesses that they work for are closed in the winter,” she said, noting that contractors are often still underemployed.
Living on an Island adds an extra layer of difficulty to those trying to navigate the bureaucracy of getting unemployment benefits and state health care, Ms. Kuh said.
On the mainland, people “might be able to hop in the car and drive to the unemployment office,” she said, adding that it’s “a rare client of ours who has the ability to get in their car and [take the ferry] and drive to Taunton.”
This “leaves people feeling stranded and helpless,” she said.
Overall, “in my experience, it’s no better, and it might be worse,” Ms. Kuh said. “This is the worst, hardest time of the year . . . [people are] hanging on by their fingernails.”