Skagway Unemployment

March unemployment figures for the state of Alaska revealed what most people were hardly surprised to learn: the average unemployment rate in the state is lower than the rest of the nation. But that’s just the average. During the first three months of 2009, many towns and villages experienced record high unemployment numbers. But one town in Southeast Alaska has nearly three times the average national unemployment rate.
Situated between 5,000 and 6,000-foot peaks, four blocks wide and a mile long, Skagway, winter population 800 is not just a summer destination for cruise ship passengers but also a wide array of seasonal workers. From the working-retired to college students, the small town at the top of the Inside Passage continues to draw people from all over the country and the state.
At the peak of summer, the population of Skagway can boom to 2,000.
There are a plethora of jobs to be had in Skagway. From working in the tourist industry to helping maintain infrastructure, the small town becomes an employment Mecca in a time when all over the nation jobs are increasingly hard to come by. Ironically, during the month of March, Skagway had the number one unemployment rate in the state. This year the unemployment rate skyrocketed to 27 percent – 10 percent higher than it was in 2001, and nearly 19 percent higher than the current state average.
“I’ve heard it’s because we’re seasonal,” said Trisha Matthews Sims, executive director of the Skagway Development Corporation.
Sims said she was surprised to hear how high the March unemployment numbers were, but was relatively dismissive about it. “Every year employment goes up when all the cruise ships come to town and goes down when the tourist season is over.” Over the past few years, unemployment usually goes from about 5 percent in the summertime, to 20 percent in the winter.
The last cruise ship docks in late September, marking the official end of the summer season in Skagway.
Once the cruise ships cease their pilgrimage to the small gold rush town, more than 90 percent of the shops and restaurants board up their doors and windows for six months and that’s when a large number of those who worked throughout the summer file for unemployment.
Sims said she could not explain why it was so much higher than last year. She did, however, allude to the idea that most of those filing for unemployment were not year round residents, but seasonal workers who would file for unemployment when their summer jobs expired, and then return to their other home outside of Skagway.
Mary Strange, a long time summer resident, and occasional winter resident of Skagway, said she used to file for Alaska unemployment and then in the winter return to her home in the Lower 48. Alaska unemployment tends to pay more than other states.
Strange said she stopped filing for unemployment when she became a winter resident in Skagway.
“I don’t know why,” Strange said. “I just stopped. And I haven’t filed for unemployment since.”
This is not necessarily because she has been employed in the winter months. She has spent the last couple of winters volunteering in Central America and Africa.
“It’s a lot cheaper to live in certain other countries than it is to live in the U.S.,” she said. “And besides, you have to phone in for your monthly unemployment check and you can’t do that from a foreign country.”
The rise in unemployment in Skagway from last year may be explained by the economic crisis that is currently hitting the rest of the nation. However the town’s unemployment numbers will probably decrease significantly as the tourist season progresses. There are still dozens of help wanted leaflets posted on the information board at the Post Office and on shop windows all over town.
Traditionally, most seasonal workers in Skagway take on two to five jobs simultaneously, as it’s the time to stock up on paychecks and pay off daunting debts. This is year is sure to be no different.