Big Sky Roundup

Gov: Unemployment rate ties an ‘all time low,’ prison wages going up

By: - March 21, 2023 12:26 pm

Gov. Greg Gianforte talks about the Montana economy and low unemployment. (Keila Szpaller/The Daily Montanan)

Montana’s unemployment rate tied an all-time low record in January, Gov. Greg Gianforte announced at a recent press conference.

“We’re unleashing the engine of economic growth, business development and job creation that for too long has sputtered in Montana,” Gianforte said at a news conference last week.

The rate dropped to 2.5% in January, and the state counts the fourth lowest unemployment in the United States, according to the Governor’s Office.

A news release from the Governor’s Office said the rate matches one from Gianforte’s second year in office. The Governor’s Office cited data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics and the state Department of Labor and Industry.

The governor said total employment has risen to a record high of 555,000 jobs and the labor force has risen to more than 570,000, “another all-time high.”

“Montanans are setting new records for job creation, business creation and employment,” Gianforte said.

“With them in mind, we’ll keep building on our pro jobs, pro business, pro family agenda so that more Montanans can thrive, prosper and achieve the American dream.”

In an email, Patrick Barkey, with the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of Montana, said most people would think it’s the job of the economy to find jobs for people who want them.

“In that respect, there’s definitely a ‘mission accomplished’ aspect to the unemployment rate data,” Barkey said in an email. “It really is pretty remarkable.”

He said there’s more to the economy than unemployment, such as inflation. However, he said people are familiar with unemployment data, and the big story is the labor market “is stretched tight.”

“Unemployment rates that low are causing some headaches for business owners, but they have been good for workers without question,” Barkey said.

Unemployment continues to be higher on reservations. Among Montana reservations, data from the Governor’s Office notes a low 4.1% unemployment rate on the Flathead Indian Reservation and a high 9% rate on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation.

At the news conference, Gianforte noted the overall unemployment rate has dipped below 3% in just 18 months since record keeping began in 1976: “Fifteen of those 18 months have been while I’ve been in office.”

The governor also touted an increase in starting wages for correctional officers. He signed one bill, House Bill 3, that raises their hourly rate $2 an hour at the Montana State Prison and $3 an hour at the Montana Women’s Prison and Pine Hills Correctional Facility.

If two other bills pass in addition to HB3, the Governor’s Office noted the state will have increased pay for correctional officers by more than 45% since the start of 2022, from $16.50 an hour to more than $24 an hour.

In a statement provided by the Governor’s Office, Montana State Prison officials praised the raises as helping to keep wages competitive. The prison has been over capacity and understaffed for months.

Warden Jim Salmonsen said in a statement the pay boost for officers is “unprecedented” in his 34 years.

“It’s boosting morale inside the compound,” Salmonsen said of the Montana State Prison.

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Keila Szpaller
Keila Szpaller

Keila Szpaller is deputy editor of the Daily Montanan and covers education. Before joining States Newsroom Montana, she served as city editor of the Missoulian, the largest news outlet in western Montana.