While the state’s economy continues to recover from earlier in the coronavirus pandemic, the number of people working part-time jobs involuntarily has risen to its highest total in nearly two decades.

Data compiled by Gary Wagner, Acadiana business economist at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s Moody College of Business, indicates the number of people now working a part-time job due to the absence of full-time employment is at 88,000.

The state’s overall job growth trended upward in the fourth quarter as Louisiana gained 44,000 jobs and each metropolitan area reported job growth.

But that part-time job total and the state’s stubbornly high unemployment rate indicate total recovery may not occur until late next year or early 2023, Wagner noted in his quarterly Louisiana Economic Activity Forecast.

“You want full-time work but it’s just not there yet,” Wagner said. “I would imagine a lot of those folks are in the hospitality and restaurants where things are just not open to the extent that they were a year ago. It’s a pretty big number. It’s a lot bigger than it was during Katrina.”

Those number of part-time jobs are part of the state’s overall jobs total as counted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, he noted, which skews the data a bit. 

While the federal unemployment rate dropped to 6.6% at the end of the fourth quarter from 8.8% in the previous quarter, the state’s unemployment rate has remained at 8.5%. Initial and continued unemployment claims have declined again in recent weeks after a significant spike the first week of the new year, state workforce data shows.

Acadiana added 300 jobs jobs through December as coronavirus pandemic recovery continues

In Lafayette Parish, more than 900 initial claims were filed the first week of January after fewer than 400 the last week in December. Continued claims have remained around 2,500 or more since then.

The unemployment rate is projected to remain above 6.5% until next year after hovering just below 5% up until the latter half of 2019.

“When you look at continued claims and initial claims, they’re about five times higher than normal,” Wagner said. “Looking at the data over the last eight weeks, things have slowed down by mid-November. We had it on a nice downward trajectory, and that sort of flattened out.

“One of the things that could have happened — and this will be a little too early to know — but I’m sure a lot of companies may have figured out ways to get by with fewer people. Firms figure out how to get efficient when times are tough, and that unfortunately means fewer people.”

Baseline projections are for each metro area except Lake Charles to continue job growth over the next five quarters, he noted, accounting for another 56,000 jobs statewide. The fastest job growth in the fourth quarter of 2020 came in New Orleans (3.0%), Houma-Thibodaux (2.9%), Shreveport-Bossier (2.6%) and Baton Rouge (2.4%).

The Lafayette area job growth was at 1.6% and with a baseline projection growth of less than half a percentage point in the first quarter of 2021.

The region and most metro areas around the country are still reporting strong home price growth, the brightest indicator in the economy. Year-over-year growth in recent quarters has been over 3%, and baseline projections for the next five quarters are for growth to average just below 3%.

The shrinking inventory and historically low interest rates for a home loan are the main drivers for that growth, Wagner said. Last month the ratio of new listings (386) to home sold (293) was the lowest since at least 2014. Outside Lafayette Parish, new listings dropped over 20%.

Inventory levels in the state’s metro areas are down about 45% from a year ago.

“I don’t know how long inventory levels can stay this low,” he said. “Nationwide they’re basically at a 20-year low. I would at least be surprised if the real estate market stays this hot throughout the entire year.”

Email Adam Daigle at adaigle@theadvocate.com.