Business Matters

Whatcom, Skagit unemployment rates drop to 2023 lows

Regional economist sees a return to pre-pandemic patterns
June 7, 2023 at 4:50 a.m.
Unemployment rates in the Bellingham area and across Whatcom and Skagit counties have rebalanced, apparently returning to their pre-pandemic cycles.
Unemployment rates in the Bellingham area and across Whatcom and Skagit counties have rebalanced, apparently returning to their pre-pandemic cycles. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Business & Work Columnist

Rhythm returns. Unemployment rate patterns in Whatcom and Skagit counties appear to be resetting to pre-pandemic norms, exactly three years after the percentages hit record highs.

The latest, non-seasonally adjusted preliminary figures for April from the state show Whatcom’s unemployment rate at 3.9% and Skagit’s at 4.2%. That’s a decline from the respective 4.8% and 5.1% rates for March. 

And — if you were keeping track — it’s a sharp drop from February’s 2023 peak of 6.2% in Whatcom County and 6.6% in Skagit County (these numbers even revised slightly downward from their initial release). That February height was reached after a steady climb beginning in September 2022, when the revised rates for both counties were around 4.5%.

So what’s going on? Perhaps normalcy.

“Long story short, most of what I see in this pattern is a return to our normal seasonal rhythms, following the pandemic disruption,” said Anneliese Vance-Sherman, regional labor economist with the Washington State Employment Security Department

For the two counties and state as a whole, she said, “until 2020, there was a consistent pattern where the unemployment rate reached its highest level in all three geographies every January or February, and reaches the lowest point of the year every April.”

Behind that typical March and April dip is a drop in the number of active job seekers (aka unemployed) when most highly seasonal industries deal with a slight lull. 

“As a result, people don’t look for seasonal work, often taking themselves out of the labor market for a month or two, between the aftermath of holiday hiring and the start of summer hiring,” Vance-Sherman said. 

Island and San Juan counties, too, have lower April preliminary rates compared with March: 3.9% in Island (down from 4.9%) and 3.3% in San Juan (down from 4.4%).  

During the pandemic, unemployment rates peaked three years ago in April 2020 at a record 17.3% in Whatcom County, 18.6% in Skagit County, 16.3% in Island County and 19% in San Juan County.

Statewide — and seasonally adjusted, so not directly comparable to the county rates — preliminary unemployment was 4.3% in April, also a decrease from a revised 4.5% in March. And in April 2020? A historically high 16.3%.

Signature effort

Downtown Bellingham — or at least a number of its businesses and people — wants local officials to know it’s not happy. And some are soliciting signatures to prove the point. 

With a May 23 email blast, Downtown Bellingham Partnership in collaboration with the Bellingham Regional Chamber of Commerce launched what they describe as a several-weeks-long campaign to gather signatures and testimonials to put before Bellingham’s mayor and city council “in early summer 2023.”

At issue are “increasing public safety, property vandalism and cleanliness concerns.” While the email acknowledges recent city and county programs to address security, graffiti and “people in crisis,” it concludes more needs to be done.

Specific asks in the organizations’ petition are for increased security personnel, easier booking of repeat offenders, more cleaning of downtown public areas and interruption of illegal drug activities.  

Though the initial email highlighted 20 businesses that have signed the letter, Downtown Bellingham Partnership’s Jenny Hagemann said the campaign was opened to the general public in part because DBP is looking for action “that serves the entire community, not just businesses.”

Hagemann said they had more than 1,000 signatures, many with written testimonials, by the close of Memorial Day weekend; nearly 200 businesses were among the public signers. She said two overarching themes were apparent.

“First, there is a sense of gratitude and relief that DBP and the Chamber took this on. Businesses especially appreciate the platform to speak collectively vs. singularly,” Hagemann said. “Second, there’s a sense of sadness and grief being expressed in people’s stories. They are saddened to change their behavior and relationship to downtown due to their recent experiences, especially families.”

Paper mail

The thud of a newspaper hitting the driveway is about to become even more rare. On June 26, The Bellingham Herald will join Skagit Valley Herald in Mount Vernon and The Daily Herald in Everett this year in moving to mail delivery, putting an end to use of local newspaper carriers.

The Skagit County paper made the switch on March 1 and the Snohomish County outlet on Jan. 3. Significantly, none share owners so the change doesn’t reflect a single top-down corporate action. Bellingham Herald is part of The McClatchy Company, Skagit Valley Herald rolls up to Adams Publishing Group and The Daily Herald’s parent is Sound Publishing. 

In a notice to subscribers published April 26, the Bellingham paper didn’t detail the business reasons for the change other than saying it would “allow us to continue to provide a dependable service.” 

But in its Christmas Day page one announcement, Everett’s Herald wrote, “mail has emerged as the best, and possibly last, option to preserve the tradition of home delivery in the face of a continuing shortage of workers willing to deliver the paper each morning.” Skagit Valley Herald likewise cited delivery staffing trouble that began during the initial pandemic years for its move.

One other notable change? Similar to the two nearby papers, what’s now the Sunday Bellingham Herald is expected to be delivered by USPS on Saturday, becoming a de facto weekend edition. So if one’s weekend routine is coffee-and-newsprint, possibly substitute Saturday evening espresso for the Sunday morning brew.

For the record, Cascadia Daily News subscribers have always received the print CDN by mail as their mid-week caffeine companion. Plus, of course (as all say), delivered digitally every day. 

Places & Things

The Coffee Shop by Hammerhead Coffee Roasters plans to open this month at 405 E. Holly St., across from the Community Food Co-op’s downtown Bellingham store. Hammerhead’s Meredith O'Malley said when the Co-op wanted to fill its old cafe space, “We jumped at the opportunity to finally open a Hammerhead flagship store front.” 

O’Malley said the Hammerhead cafe will serve breakfast and lunch, and highlights will include “our make your own coffee blend area and our beautiful full-sun patio right off of Holly Street.”

(For the latest Places & Things, check here throughout the week.)

Frank Catalano’s column appears Wednesdays. Email:; Twitter @FrankCatalano.

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