INDIANAPOLIS — For the first time in a year, unemployment statistics show the stark difference between the first month that the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hit and now that the United States is emerging from the impact of the coronavirus.

Unemployment has returned to prepandemic, full-employment levels — just look at LaGrange County at 2.3% unemployment in April — and it reminds people of Northeast Indiana just how bad the situation was a year ago.

Rachel Blakeman of the Community Research Institute at Purdue University Fort Wayne offered insight and caution about the numbers.

“CRI believes the usual year-over-year comparison will be more appropriate in late summer or into fall, recalling how rapidly the labor market recovered. Right now, they create a bit of a false narrative in light of the circumstances that caused those numbers to spike last year. In other words, the spike a year ago was not a traditional market force but rather a public health measure that necessitated an economic response,” Blakeman said.

LaGrange County, in fact, shows just how bad the situation became a year ago when its first pandemic unemployment rate came in at 32.7%, the worst in the region.

Unemployment in LaGrange in April 2020 was more than 10 times worse than it is today. There were 5,766 people unemployed in LaGrange in April 2020 compared to 447 in April 2021.

In March 2020, before the pandemic’s impact was felt in the job market, LaGrange’s labor force stood at 18,934. That dropped to 17,654 in April 2020, but that has grown markedly in a year’s time. In March 2021 the labor force was 19,046 and has grown to 19,797 in April 2021. In fact, in April 2021, there were more people employed — 19,350 — than there were in the labor force at any point during 2020.

“April showed a larger labor force than March in all but one county, Whitley but that difference was negligible, and all counties showed more people working than the previous month,” Blakeman said.

All of this data comes in a month prior to Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb announcing that Indiana was going to eliminate the $300 a week supplemental federal unemployment payments starting in June.

“Although the supplemental unemployment doesn’t end until next month, more northeast Indiana workers re-entered paid employment last month based on the numbers working or looking for work,” Blakeman said. “While many employers are finding it difficult to fill open positions, the April labor market data tells us people are willing and ready to work. The challenge now shifts to employers and their ability to offer a competitive package — wages and benefits — to fill open spots. The next few months will be very telling about how workers in northeast Indiana align with available jobs.”

Along with LaGrange County, DeKalb and Steuben counties have both seen much growth in the labor force and number of people employed compared to recent months and prepandemic months.

DeKalb County dropped to 3.0% unemployment in April 2021, down from 3.6% in March. In April 2020, the rate stood at 21.1% yet in March 2020 it was 3.2%.

Steuben County saw an unemployment rate of 2.9% in April 2021, down from 3.7% in March. In April 2020, Steuben’s unemployment rate was one of the lower rates in area at 20.2% compared with prepandemic March that stood at 2.8%.

Noble County’s unemployment dropped to 3.4% in April, down from 4.1% in March. In April 2020, unemployment was one of the worst in the area at 28.9% and the month prior it stood at 3.5%.

Whitley County had one of the lowest unemployment rates during the first month that unemployment statistics reflected the pandemic, with a rate of 17.0% in April 2020 compared with 3.3% in March. In April 2021, Whitley County’s unemployment stood at 2.9% compared to 3.5 in March.

Allen County’s unemployment improved to 4.2% in April compared to 4.5% in March. A year ago in April unemployment hit 19.5% compared to 3.6% in March 2020.

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