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Janesville-Beloit metro tops WI’s unemployment, officials say hurting healthcare industry a cause

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JANESVILLE (WKOW) -- New numbers from Wisconsin's Department of Workforce Development show a big increase in unemployment rates across all 72 counties and in our biggest metropolitan areas.

The unemployment rate in the Madison area rose from just over 2 percent in March to nearly 12 percent in April -- the lowest of the metropolitan areas.

The highest is in the Janesville-Beloit area, which rose from almost 4 percent in March to 17 percent in April.

"We were in the 3.4-3.5 percent range, which is basically full employment," said Gale Price, Janesville's Economic Development Director.

Sarah Millard with the City of Beloit said those March numbers were due to hard work over the last several years.

"A lot of work has been done in the last few years to focus on job creation here and in Rock County," she said.

But then the coronavirus pandemic hit, and unemployment skyrocketed.

"We're actually surprised that it's the highest in the state," Price said.

He said the area's economy was hit hard in 2008, including with the closure of the GM plant, but the economy was rebuilt differently.

"We are a much more diverse economy than we were in 2008," he said.

Among the expanded industries was healthcare, which Price says is now -- for the first time -- taking a hit as well.

"Five of our 30 major employers in the county were healthcare providers," he said. "Those healthcare providers had to furlough people because they were not able to do elective surgeries."

Price says other industries are struggling too, but through the economic struggles of the past, healthcare had stayed steady.

"That's really an industry that's never been affected by downturns in the economy," he said. "This is wholly different than anything else we've ever seen."

As the economy starts to now reopen, there are questions about how much longer Janesville and Beloit will stay at the top of the unemployment list.

"I don't see us getting back to 3.4 or 3.5 percent before the holiday season," Price said. "I just don't think that's realistic."

He says while the economy may be able to be closer to normal by mid-summer, some industries will face permanent changes for a while -- which is why it's good the area was on an upward economic trend prior to the pandemic.

"We have Amazon opening this fall, bringing hundreds of jobs to the community," Millard said.

Mercyhealth, one of the big healthcare employers in the Janesville area, started rescheduling some procedures earlier this month -- after announcing salary cuts and furloughs at the end of last month.

Andrew Merica

Reporter/Producer, 27 News

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