Seasonal work in tourism and fishing leaves families scrambling during lullsLONG BEACH - At the same time organizations such as His Supper Table are serving an average of 41,000 free meals each year on the Peninsula, an underlying factor is at work, and that's unemployment - essentially tying people to poverty on the Peninsula.
According to recent Washington State Emplo-yment Security statistics, the unemployment rate for Pacific County hovered at around 9 percent for the months of January and February 2003; data for March and April has yet to be released.
The official annual rate of unemployment for Pacific County in 2002 was 8.19 percent; for 2001 the annual rate was 9.0 percent.
This is in comparison to the current national average of 6.0 percent, which is based on April 2003 data.
The Pacific County rates are unadjusted, resulting in higher rates than the national adjusted rate, but the prevalence of unemployment on the Peninsula is very real, according to Joyce Prior, at WorkSource in Long Beach, which is the Washington State Employment Security office for Long Beach.
It's important to note that jobless statistics don't necessarily include many people who have given up looking for jobs and others who are under-employed - working significantly less than they would like.
The frontlinePrior said the hard truth about unemployment on the Peninsula is two-fold: On one hand is the overall lack of living-wage jobs; and on the other is the annual cycle of seasonal work. The problem and end result is that many living on the Peninsula never attain living wages over any extended period of time, and more often than not, wind up seeking unemployment benefits at some point during the year.
"On an average day we see a minimum of 50 people," said Prior. "Some days as many as 75 to 100 people will come through these doors."
According to Prior, WorkSource in Long Beach sees a large influx of people seeking work in early May each year, due mainly to the tourism-related and fishing industry jobs which can be had, particularly in communities such as Long Beach, Ilwaco and Oysterville.
"Unfortunately, what many don't see is that most of these jobs are seasonal," said Prior. "This ends up with people who came here feeling good about getting a job so easily, then boom, they're laid off after Labor Day. At that point, they're stuck, and they end up here out of work and with no money."
Prior said the problem is exacerbated by the fact most people working seasonal jobs have few other marketable work skills, and when fall comes around, they are left with the option of staying on the Peninsula and struggling on unemployment and public assistance until the coming May, or just leaving the Peninsula altogether.
What's worse is that some seasonal workers may not have worked enough hours during the summer season to qualify for unemployment benefits. Those in this predicament with children can get Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) funds, which provide cash assistance, food stamps and medical assistance for children. But those without children can only apply for food stamps.
Prior said it is the end of October or beginning of November when the Peninsula's workforce really gets hit hard and heavy - when rent comes due and food needs to be put on the table. She said this is when organizations such as His Supper Table or Peninsula FISH come into play.
"Peninsula unemployment is not just people passing through, but your year-round residents as well," said Prior. "They too are tapping into local programs, such as food banks, meal programs or programs to help with utilities."
Because of the lack of living-wage jobs on the Peninsula, Prior said WorkSource in Long Beach searches out of the area for as many unemployed workers as possible. She said last week that there were 48 jobs posted on the bulletin board at WorkSource, but by early November this could easily drop to as few as 10, and that the bulk of all these postings, regardless of the time of year, are minimum wage.
"Employers here do this because they know they can get away with minimum wage," Prior said. "There is the fact that there are few employers and a lot of people wanting the same jobs, so that works to keep the wages down. So, yes there is a dark side to our economy here."
According to Prior, another situation Peninsula workers encounter is being sent home early when business is slow, which she said is automatically built into businesses affiliated with tourism. Prior said this practice is common not only in food and retail businesses, but also at most hotels and motels. She said that many times employees in these usually minimum wage jobs are required to show up in person each day to see if there is work that day.
"That's tough if you are having to drive from Ocean Park to Ilwaco," she said, pointing out that for those who rely on public transportation, this is even more of a hardship.
The bottom line for those sent home early is a smaller paycheck.
According to DSHS First Program Specialist Robin Holmes, who works closely with WorkSource, for many people a livelihood depends on being able to get work in several different Peninsula industries throughout the year.
"I know people who will work for restaurants in the summer, oysters in the fall and winter, and then crab in the winter and spring," said Holmes. "It's because those are the jobs available during those seasons. Most of the people have the goal of developing a career pathway, but the reality is you work seasonal jobs to survive, unless you have the education and training for some of the few year-round jobs here."
Economist: Peninsula lacks diversity
According to Paul Turek, a regional economist for Labor Market and Economic Analysis, a division of the state's Employment Security Department, one of the biggest problems on the Peninsula is a lack of employment diversity. Turek is responsible for Pacific County as well as Thurston, Lewis, Mason and Grays Harbor Counties.
"Sometimes you can nurture an area to get some other industries to grow, but to do that requires an enterprising attitude by the localities," said Turek.
According to Turek, he sees the logic of nurturing the tourism industry on the Peninsula, but warned that too much focus on one industry is a risky practice. As an example he pointed out how dependent the state became on Boeing, which has implemented a number of layoffs since Sept. 11, 2001.
"One of the aspects of tourism is that it starts out immediately with low-paying jobs," said Turek. "Tourism by itself is not going to make your economy grow. It is not independent by itself, unless you're Las Vegas. I don't see this in Pacific County."
Turek acknowledged the challenge to the Peninsula because of its isolation and distance from any major roadways, but said what is still required is a diverse economy. He said utilizing the Columbia River could be an option for some type of Peninsula manufacturing or light industry, but cited that not all waterways may be serviceable.
Turek pointed out that even if a community had a wildly successful tourism economy, there would still be risks and dangers which could shut it down.
"And when there is a downturn, you want another industry, which is the argument for diversification," he said. "The best case scenario for the Peninsula would be tourism and light industry or another industry. It can be a Herculean task, but that is what you want to do - to diversify - because at some level you have to make some decisions that are compatible with what you currently have."
According to Turek, until a viable job market is created on the Peninsula, and more jobs are available for all those who wish to live here, what is important is to train people to be marketable. This would entail both "hard" and "soft" job skills which people could utilize outside of the Peninsula to obtain gainful, living-wage employment.
Turek said soft skills would include social skills, such as knowing what to say and having manners and how to show up to a job consistently. He said hard skills would include math, English, the ability to write reports, computer skills, manufacturing skills (related to math ability), and working with tools, which also require math skills.
Pacific County unemployment rates:
2001 annual avg 9.0
2002 annual avg. 8.19
2002 annual avg. 9.05 (as of Feb. 28)