Before the pandemic, Daniel Ojeda was used to supplementing his income with unemployment benefits, writes Idaho Press reporter Ryan Suppe. A 29-year-old ballet dancer and choreographer, Ojeda works about half the year as a freelancer, when he's not on contract with Ballet Idaho during the fall and winter. Last summer, those freelance gigs — about half Ojeda's annual income — disappeared, as the curtain dropped and lights went out in theaters and studios.
Working in an arts industry decimated by the novel coronavirus, Ojeda, along with his colleagues at Ballet Idaho, have adapted and survived. Although, nearly one year into the pandemic, stages remain closed, and audiences are not permitted or, at the very least, ill-advised.
"We're all just in this perpetual limbo," Ojeda, a Boise resident, said. "But it's also a vacuum-sealed, perpetual limbo, where we're slowly dying of lack of oxygen. It's not even a situation where we don't want to work; we just simply can't. We don't have an audience, we don't have theaters, we don't have safe spaces to practice."
The Idaho Department of Labor in 2020 paid more than $1 billion in benefits to the tens of thousands of Idahoans, 92% of whom lost their jobs or had their hours reduced due to the pandemic and the economic recession that followed. Since a peak of unemployment claimants in May — more than 78,000 — weekly claims in February dropped to about 33,000.
That's still "substantially higher than we usually see," said the labor department's Benefits Bureau Chief Joshua McKenna. The 33,000 claims during the week of Feb. 6 is triple the number of claims during the same week last year, pre-pandemic. While Idaho has fared better than most states in terms of economic recovery, it continues to feel the impact of long-term unemployment that followed an economic shock from last spring.
Recent data shows construction and building and grounds maintenance workers have the highest jobless rates; however, those include seasonal jobs that typically drop in the winter months during normal years. On the other hand, service industries, such as food and retail, and health care and social services have been slower to recover.
Idaho's unemployment rate in December, the most recent available data, was 4.4%, lower than the national average of 6.3% as of January. Idaho reached a peak last April at 11.8%, just two months after a pre-pandemic unemployment rate of 2.5%, an all-time low and among the nation's lowest at the time.
You can read Suppe's full story online here at idahopress.com (subscription required), or pick up today's Sunday/Monday edition of the Idaho Press; it's on the front page.