Despite the pandemic, Utah ended 2020 with more jobs. How did that happen?

New report credits the state’s diverse economy as unemployment rate falls to 3.6%.

(Francisco Kjolseth | Tribune file photo) Help-wanted signs from around the Salt Lake Valley, as seen on Friday, July 17, 2020. Utah reported Friday it had reversed job losses during the first nine months of the coronavirus pandemic to close 2020 slightly up on employment.

Nearly nine months into the pandemic, Utah’s economy has reversed deep job losses suffered earlier in the crisis and actually ended a terrible 2020 slightly ahead on employment.

The Beehive State’s unemployment rate markedly improved to 3.6% last month from 4.3% in November after essentially flipping in December from a downturn to something of a jobs expansion, ending the year with employment up by 0.6%.

Nationally, unemployment stood at 6.7% for December, unchanged from November. Overall jobs across the U.S. ended 2020 down 6%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In contrast, December saw a 1.1% gain for Utah in private-sector employment over the same month in 2019, for the state’s first such monthly increase since March 2020, when initial COVID-19 restrictions began. That jump, led by robust hiring in retail with the holiday season, helped immensely in erasing prior losses.

Mark Knold, chief economist with the state Department of Workforce Services, noted Friday that Utah entered the health crisis with “balanced economic fundamentals” that have proved key to absorbing heavy job losses due to the coronavirus and turning them around.

“There is room for additional improvement,” Knold said in a news release, “but the stage is set for an optimistic 2021.”

Seven of the state’s 10 major industries added employment in December compared to the same month in 2019, with trade, transportation and utilities by far the largest gainers, up 14,000 jobs, followed by construction, up 6,900.

The biggest jobs loser last month was once again Utah’s leisure and hospitality sector, which, along with performance venues, has been among the most damaged by the crisis. It shed 20,900 positions for the month.

In a 2021 economic report to new Gov. Spencer Cox, advisers noted that unemployment in Utah rose as high as 10% in April, when health precautions led many businesses to close and thousands of working Utahns went on furlough.

“But as the year unfolded,” the report stated, “the resiliency of the Utah economy was on full display.”

Much of that ability to bounce back, the report added, has stemmed from the state’s economy being one of the most diverse in the country, with its jobs spread more evenly among various industries.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

“While the public health crisis has been tragic, the impact of the pandemic on the Utah economy has been much milder than initially expected,” said the report, which predicted employment in the state will surge in 2021 by nearly 58,000 jobs, assuming COVID-19 vaccines are deployed widely.

As of December, Utah reported total employment was at 1.6 million jobs. Roughly 60,100 Utahns were out of work last month, although far fewer are drawing unemployment assistance or monthly pandemic-relief stipends approved by Congress.

Utah officials reported Thursday that new unemployment claims last week were at 6,814, down from the previous week but still more than four times higher than an average week in 2019.

Roughly 30,900 Utahns are currently drawing jobless benefits week to week, the state said. That measure of ongoing job disruption has risen for three consecutive weeks after 34 weeks of steady declines, in what state officials say is largely a typical seasonal fluctuation and not tied directly to the effects of the pandemic.

The state has also seen a notable uptick in Utahns seeking extended unemployment benefits as a result of exhausting other government aid, after Congress approved a new $900 billion pandemic-relief package in late December that kept those benefits going until March.

A total of 2,001 Utahns sought extended benefits for the first time last week, up from 656 residents the week before.