Thousands Exit La Crosse Labor Force

In 2010, amid the fallout from the global financial crisis of 2008, the official unemployment rate in the La Crosse metro area was as high as 8.4%. By the end of 2019, nearly ten years later, the unemployment rate had dropped to only 2.8%. Labor data for 2010-19 shows a slow but steady improvement with service, health care, and trade and transportation industries having the largest job gains.  

Those job gains quickly disappeared with the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic and the Safer At Home orders at the end of March. In April, the La Crosse unemployment rate soared to 11.3%. While all job sectors experienced a decrease in the number of jobs, leisure and hospitality saw the highest decline, shedding 3,600 jobs between March and April. The numbers come from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The sector with the largest relative losses continues to be government. For every month since April, the decrease in the number of workers from 2019 has ranged from 16 to 22%.  At the beginning of the pandemic in March, government was the third largest labor sector in the La Crosse metro area. As of August, the sector is now fifth, surpassed by manufacturing and the leisure/hospitality industries.  

Unemployment in the La Crosse metro area since 2010. Source:

In the most recent report available from the Bureau of Labor, the unemployment rate for the La Crosse metro area had decreased to 5.1% in August, while the national unemployment rate was 8.1% for the month. But the numbers, of course, don’t tell the whole story. To be classified as employed by the Bureau of Labor, one only has to work one paid hour per week; employment, then, includes both full time workers and the under-employed.

Furthermore, unemployment only includes those who are actively seeking work. Those who have exited the civilian labor force, due to health vulnerabilities, demands of child care, or simply out of discouragement at the lack of jobs, are not counted.  The labor force in La Crosse is now at the lowest point of the 2010-20 period; unemployment rates hide the fact that nearly 4,000 workers have exited the labor force since February.   

According to the Ludwig Institute for Shared Economic Prosperity (LISEP), the “true rate of unemployment” was 26.1% for the entirety of the US in September. LISEP defines unemployment as “the percentage of the U.S. labor force that does not have a full-time job (35+ hours a week) but wants one, has no job, or does not earn a living wage, conservatively pegged at $20,000 annually before taxes.” The official unemployment rate conceals the realities of massive economic inequality in the US that existed long before the pandemic.  In 2018, a report from United Way found that 26% of households in La Crosse County earned less than the basic cost of living for the county and 11% lived below the federal poverty line.

As mentioned, the latest labor reports for the La Crosse metro area are from August. Future labor reports may be impacted by the large rise in the number of Covid-19 cases reported by La Crosse County in the last six weeks. 

Reporting by Ben Prostine. Email questions to lacrosse Top image from shows trends in the La Crosse metro area labor force since 2010.

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