Utah’s unemployment rate for May is 8.5%, well below the national mark of 13.3%

(Rick Egan | Tribune file) Salt Lake City's City Creek Shopping Center was among several major retail outlets in Utah that began to reopen in May. Unemployment numbers for the month, released Friday, may indicate the month was a turning point in the state's economic recovery from COVID-19.

May may have marked a turning point for Utah as it recovers from its worst unemployment crisis in history, a leading economist said Friday.

The state’s official jobless rate was 8.5% last month, officials announced in the latest report revealing ongoing impacts of the pandemic.

New data shows as many as 75,400 jobs were lost in May compared to the same month the year before, when Utah’s economy was breaking records for job creation. Employment shrank by 4.8% overall in Utah last month, the report said.

Yet the state’s jobless rate was still well below the national average of 13.3% for May, analysts note. And according to Mark Knold, chief economist at the state Department of Workforce Services, improvements in Utah’s labor markets for the month now appear to mark April as the low point in the COVID-19 setback to its economy.

“We expect May to be the largest single month for job improvement with the initial return to work for many employees as consumer activity greatly increased,” Knold said Friday in a statement, noting that nearly one quarter of Utahns who had been furloughed due to the pandemic reported back to work last month.

Evidence from initial unemployment filings in the first weeks of June indicate that trend is continuing, as Gov. Gary Herbert continues to press for reopening the economy.

Two of Utah’s 10 major industries in the private sector showed job gains in May, with 8,000 positions added in construction and 500 in financial services.

The other eight, though, showed further signs of devastation caused by the health emergency. Leisure and hospitality services lost another 42,100 jobs in May, data shows, followed by professional services, down by 7,800 jobs, and trade, transportation and utilities, which shed 7,200 positions last month.

That mixed picture for different industries has meant the crisis is hitting Utah’s five biggest metropolitan areas in very different ways.

Jobs in the Salt Lake City area fell by 6.3% in May, followed by Logan, at 6.2%; St. George, down 4.4%; Provo-Orem, down 2.5%; and the Ogden-Clearfield area, where employment declined 1.6% last month.

Declines in hospitality jobs — restaurants, bars, hotels and the like — were widespread, but fell heaviest in the Salt Lake City, Logan and St. George areas, May data shows. Contractions in state government jobs hit hardest in St. George, Logan and, not surprisingly, in Utah’s capital.

Statewide, the numbers reveal some major winners and losers in May within specific sectors.

Employment in Utah’s movie-making niche — motion picture and sound recording — plummeted by 62.1% in May. Jobs in arts, entertainment and recreation were down 57.7% for the month.

Air transportation employment declined by 40.8%, as Delta and other airlines continue to reel from the declines in travel.

Jobs for couriers and messengers, meanwhile, increased by 35.4% due in part to the surge in home deliveries and online shopping. Internet service providers are also hiring, with those jobs up 5.3% as more people continue to work from home.