Even as more people are being called back to work, those who are back on the job are working fewer hours than before the pandemic, according to Gary Hiles, chief economist with the Guam Department of Labor.

"So even if they've been called back to work, their number of hours still qualifies them to receive unemployment assistance," Hiles said.

There are 640 more jobs and more people working as of March. The March 2021 preliminary statistics reflect the increase, however, job numbers were lower – by 7,050 – in comparison to last year.

Even with hundreds of jobs available, there are still close to 9,500 people relying on federally funded pandemic unemployment assistance, which ends in September.

GDOL has been working with private sector partners as well as Guam Community College to hold job training in hope of helping unemployed residents gain skills to find new and possibly even higher paying jobs.

Hiles, who has been an economist on Guam since 1983, said this is the biggest slump he's seen hit the island. He reiterated that the federal dollars that have flowed into Guam have helped keep the crippled economy moving somewhat and have bolstered recovery efforts, but said more work is needed.

"Every recovery is different," he said. "On one hand, the scale of the economic shutdown was the largest in my recent history. But also the scale and the speed of the federal economic stimulus, fiscal and monetary policy has been very strong and that's helped mitigate ... the economic downturn, but not entirely."

He said the federal money that flowed into Guam helped businesses that otherwise would have shut down and laid off workers. It also helped people who suddenly found themselves without jobs and allowed them to continue paying their bills and possibly have money on the side to spend at local stores and restaurants. All of this helped to slightly reduce the impact of the global pandemic on Guam's primarily tourism-reliant economy.

Hiles said the industry most affected by the pandemic is the hotel business. The trend for that particular group of workers shows:

• December 2019: The average worker was on the job for 36.5 hours a week. 

• September 2020: Hours took a sharp decline, to 12.7 hours a week.

• March 2021: A slight increase in hours, to 16 hours a week.

He said that trend also stayed true to what many saw during the pandemic, where companies opted to reduce hours for employees as opposed to releasing people from employment as tourism slowed and businesses were shut down.

"So it's good that they have some hours but, instead of the reduction being across the board of laying off all of the people, what happened more was that they've reduced the amount of hours that people worked," he said.

According to the March 2021 report, unemployment was at 16.5%. That's a "marginal" improvement, Hiles stated, over December 2020's 19.4% unemployment. It's still 10.4 percentage points higher than the December 2019 figure pre-pandemic, the report states.

Unemployment figures show:

• September 2019: 3.6%

• December 2019: 6.1%

• June 2020: 17.3%

• September 2020: 17.9%

• December 2020: 19.4%

• March 2021: 16.5%

Bright spots

Hiles said there are two bright spots: construction and child tax credits.

Hiles said construction never really stopped. Deemed an essential industry, construction workers continued to show up at the job site and get paid.

It's this, Hiles said, that is a factor in the increased average salary of hourly workers in the private sector.

According to the March report, in comparison to the previous year:

• Private average hourly earnings increased from $15.23 to $16.67.

• Average weekly hours paid decreased from 34.1 to 33.2.

• Average weekly earnings increased from $519.29 to $554.28.

"The increase in average hourly earnings was due to a larger proportion of employment in construction and fewer in lower-wage industries," the report states.

"In July about 90% of families with (qualifying) children will likely get the child tax credit in some form," Hiles said. The Guam government hasn't yet said how it would disburse the money, but state governments are paying out at least a portion of the tax credit in July as an advance, since half of the tax year is already over.

The American Rescue Plan passed by Congress and signed by President Joe Biden earlier this year increases the child tax credit program for tax year 2021, which increased maximum payments to families to $3,600, from $2,000 monthly.


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