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Virginia's unemployment rate is back to where it was pre-pandemic, but there's a lingering question

Unemployment is back down to pre-pandemic levels in Virginia.

Winchester has the lowest unemployment rate in Virginia, which is only 2.4%. Other metro areas in the Shenandoah Valley are seeing very low unemployment, while northern Virginia, Hampton Roads and Richmond are seeing relatively higher numbers.

Terry Clower at George Mason University says that's a reflection of the kind of industries hardest hit by the pandemic.

"I think that's an artifact of the presence of leisure and hospitality kind of places," Clower explains. "If you think about the concentration of restaurants, tourism venues, things like that, they're going to be less so in the Shenandoah Valley region than they are in Arlington, Alexandria, Norfolk or Virginia Beach."

Leslie Stratton at Virginia Commonwealth University says many people are choosing not to seek employment.

"Why they're not seeking employment is less clear," Stratton says. "Is it because of COVID? Is it because they've decided the family can make do with only one income? We don't have a great deal of information regarding the characteristics of the households of individuals who have stepped away from the labor market."

She says that's a question economists will be grappling with as Virginia and the rest of the country dig out of the downturn with a labor force participation rate that's significantly lower than before the pandemic.

This report, provided by Virginia Public Radio, was made possible with support from the Virginia Education Association.

Michael Pope is an author and journalist who lives in Old Town Alexandria.