Pa. unemployment rate declines, nonfarm jobs reach record high

Lower unemployment rates and new highs in nonfarm jobs marked the month of March in Pennsylvania. 

The state’s unemployment rate last month dropped two-tenths of a percentage point to 4.2%, and the total nonfarm jobs hit a record level, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor & Industry’s situation report. 

March marked the third consecutive month of record-high total nonfarm jobs in Pennsylvania. The state’s unemployment rate was also two-tenths of a point below its level in March 2022. 

The national unemployment rate also declined, dropping one-tenth of a percentage to 3.5%. The national rate is also down 0.1 percentage points over the year. 

Pennsylvania’s civilian labor force, which is the estimated number of residents working or looking for work, increased 5,000 over the month. Resident employment rose by 12,000 over the month and unemployment decreased 7,000. 

The state’s nonfarm jobs increased by 12,500 over the month to a record level 6,108,900 in March. The previous mark of 6,096,400 was set last month. Jobs increased from February in seven of the 11 supersectors with the largest gain (4,500) in leisure and hospitality. Professional and business services also hit a record high. 

Total nonfarm jobs increased by 159,000 over the year with gains in all 11 supersectors. Education and health services were up 52,000 and had the largest volume over-the-year gain among supersectors. Three other supersectors each added more than 16,000 jobs.

Lancaster County Tourism bounced back in 2021, this year could be stronger 

Lancaster County brought in more visitors and made more money through its tourism industry in 2021 than it did in 2019, according to Discover Lancaster’s 2021 tourism economic impact report. 

Last year, Lancaster County saw a total of 9.13 million visitors, who spent $2.3 billion in the county—an increase of 2.2% and 3.2% respectively over 2019, according to the report. 

While the 2021 numbers show a return to form for the region’s tourism industry, it does not paint a full picture, seeing as though group travel has yet to completely return to the county, said Edward Harris, president and CEO of Discover Lancaster. 

“Leisure travel was predominant last year, and we’re working to further restore group travel in 2022, particularly meetings and conventions, as well as help spur a return to workforce levels that sustain our industry and allow it to make such a major contribution to the area’s overall economy,” said Harris. 

The majority of travel and entertainment spending within the county in 2019 happened in the last four months of the year, according to Harris. 

2021 marked the return of Lancaster County’s theater season, meaning the reopening of popular theaters such as the Fulton Theater, American Music Theater, Sight and Sound Theater and more, which see high numbers of goers particularly in the fall and winter months. 

Prior to the opening of local theaters, other Lancaster tourism mainstays like the Strausburg Railroad, Kitchen Kettle Village and Pennsylvania Renaissance Fair, also drove up 2021 numbers. 

Harris also contributed the region’s strong return in the back half of the year to a number of grants Discover Lancaster received that allowed it to invest in marketing campaigns in large neighboring cities like New York, Philadelphia and Washington D.C. 

“Without those grants we would probably not be ahead of the curve in the tourism industry comeback,” he said. “We promoted Lancaster County and a travel safe message starting back in the fall of 2020 throughout 2021. For us to be able to promote the area during that period really paid off.” 

One challenge that continues to face the industry is staffing in the hospitality sector. Harris said that leading into Memorial Day, many of the county’s attractions are showing improving staffing numbers, but the county will be keeping an eye on the data. 

2022 could prove to be record breaking for the county’s tourism industry if the first third of the year is to be believed, said Harris. 

“We are on pace to have a record year based on the increases we’ve seen during our off-peak months,” he said. “Typically, that’s our softest period and our gains have had substantial increases.” 

Discover Lancaster to offer free travel to business meeting planners to increase corporate travel 

A Southern Airways Express aircraft. PHOTO/PROVIDED

In an effort to bring more corporate travel to the region, Discover Lancaster has partnered with Lancaster Airport’s main commercial carrier to pay for round trip flights of qualified meeting planners from Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh. 

Discover Lancaster announced this week that it will be offering free flights in partnership with Southern Airways Express through March and April to meeting and convention planners to visit and plan events throughout the county. 

The new program comes at a time where social and leisure travel has picked back up in Lancaster County, but corporate and business travel continues to lag, said Edward Harris, president and CEO of Discover Lancaster. 

Lodging revenue has bounced back dramatically with Lancaster County hotels earning an increased 28.6% in revenue in January 2022 compared to January 2019, according to Discover Lancaster. 

Those numbers can be attributed to leisure travel as well as sports travel, particularly for tournaments at Spooky Nook Sports in Lancaster, the largest indoor sports complex of its kind in the country. 

Group travel, such as meetings and conventions, once made up for 40% of overnight stays in the county and currently rest at 16%. 

“We are actually among a handful of destinations that are ahead of the curve in terms of tourism returning to our destination,” said Harris. “Unfortunately, the corporate meeting groups dwindled during the pandemic. We were hit very hard, and they are just starting to show signs of returning.” 

Planners for corporate events, meetings and conventions generally plan their larger events within six months to a year and a half in advance, said Harris. By offering meeting planners in Washington D.C. and Pittsburgh free flights to Lancaster in the next two months, Lancaster’s hotels could begin to see a strong return in corporate groups later in 2022. 

This is particularly important for the region’s hotels, which generally rely on business visits for their weekday traffic and the off season. 

“Corporate visitors come between Sunday and Thursday night and in the fall spring and winter when kids are back at school. That isn’t when leisure travels,” said Stephen Sikking, general partner with the Eden Resort and Suites in Lancaster.  

Many of Eden’s offerings cater specifically to the corporate crowd. The hotel has seen a return to day meetings but has yet to see businesses plan two-to-three-day meetings where they would previously invite regional or national clients or employees for training purposes, said Sikking. 

Sikking added that he has heard from a number of companies that they are looking at returning to in-person meetings when their teams are comfortable travelling again. He said that the partnership between Southern Airways and Discover Lancaster could help organizations realize that the region is ready to go and open for business. 

“These groups would find this area enjoyable and practical and hopefully we can get some new eyes in the area and get some new business coming to the market,” said Sikking. “Pittsburgh and Washington D.C. are great corporate hubs. It will be a big lift for the entire market if we can get some new or existing businesses.” 

Discover Lancaster has rolled out the program through a digital marketing campaign that includes advertising on the websites of the Washington Business Journal and the Pittsburgh Business Times, targeted placements through Lancaster-based social media agency Click Upon and targeted e-blasts from Meetings Today to 2,000 planners in both cities. 

“Southern has been Lancaster’s ‘hometown’ airline for almost a decade and we’re excited to be involved in this initiative.  Our fast flights from Pittsburgh and Washington-Dulles will make it easy for meeting planners to ‘Discover Lancaster’ as the perfect destination for their next event,” said Mark Cestari, chief commercial officer at Southern Airways Express. 

Gardens in Hershey, Mechanicsburg highlight new PA Tourism road trip

Hershey Gardens and two gardens in Mechanicsburg have been chosen to highlight southcentral Pennsylvania in a new road trip announced today by the Pennsylvania Tourism Office.

Best Buds: A Garden Trail,” a self-guided road trip released to coincide with the 2021 Philadelphia Flower Show, describes Hershey Gardens as “23 acres of floral splendor, complete with a hands-on children’s garden, conservatory, butterfly atrium, and a bug zone featuring fascinating insects from around the world.”

Liberty Forge Arboretum in Mechanicsburg, which is on a golf course, is a member of the American Public Gardens Association. It has more than 100 acres of breathtaking views, from pristine gardens to impressive collections of trees and plants native to the commonwealth.

Ashcombe Farm & Greenhouses, also in Mechanicsburg, features a fully stocked greenhouse and nursery brimming with flowers, vegetable plants, herbs, houseplants, trees, and shrubs, as well as the tools of the trade. But it makes the list for another reason too: its onsite bakery.

“Follow the aroma of fresh baked cookies, whoopee pies, breads, muffins, and other tasty treats to reach this highly popular gardening destination,” Best Buds advises.

The entire garden trail, with 21 garden or arboretum stops, runs from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh, visiting a selection of award-winning grounds and greenery, with detours along the way.

Also in the list and close by for families in the midstate is the Arboretum at Penn State Mont Alto, in Franklin County. Visitors will find more than 1,000 trees representing close to 175 different species that have been gathered and planted over the past 115-plus years.

One of the tallest trees is a large Northern Red Oak, native to Pennsylvania.

Harrisburg International withstands sharp decline in passengers

Harrisburg International Airport’s leadership entered 2020 with high hopes after last year proved to be the airport’s best year on record.

While the Lower Swatara, Dauphin County-based airport also saw record numbers into January and February, any hopes for a strong year were dashed by the pandemic, which brought the number of flights leaving the airport on any given day to single digits.

“Social distancing and air travel do not go well together,” said Timothy Edwards, executive director of Harrisburg International Airport. “We started to see a rapid decline by March 16 and of course that continued through the month of March and has continued since.”

By April, 85% of flights were being canceled daily at the airport with only five to seven flights leaving the facility every day compared to the airport’s average 35 flights a day.

With close to no passengers flying out of the airport, there were no cars parked in the airport’s parking lot and revenue hit rock bottom, according to Edwards.

“There was no business,” he said. “Our concessions were shut down and you barely saw a traveler in the terminal building. It was quite depressing.”

June and July were slightly better thanks to summer vacations. HIA saw a spike in activity in leisure destinations on July 4th, but numbers fell back following news in mid-July that destinations such as Florida and Texas had become hotspots for the virus.

Edwards said the airport has seen some leisure travelers return, but it could be some time before the business sector is flying again.

“It’s the leisure traffic that decided they were ready to fly first,” he said. “Businesses aren’t prepared to release their staff for travel for fear of liability issues. We haven’t seen that come back yet.”

To reduce expenses, the airport enacted an all staff furlough for its 100 full-time equivalent employees of one day off without pay every two weeks. It also enacted a hiring freeze.

More than $4 million in capital investments and operations and management expenses were canceled, pausing a number of large projects planned for 2020, such as refurbishing of one of the airport’s 12 passenger boarding bridges and the installation of a new boiler.

Even with the pay cuts across the facility’s many departments, Edwards said the airport has predicted that it will be losing $11.5 million in revenue between April and December, mostly from the loss of revenue from parking.

Fortunately for HIA, airports across the country were awarded part of a $10 billion pool of funding through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act to keep the country’s national airport system operating. HIA received $9.9 million through the Act, which Edwards said was vital to maintaining operations.

“That $10 million through the CARES Act will pay our debt service for 2020, which will allow us to keep our head above water through the end of this year,” he said. “That funding was tremendously important.”

The airport is currently projecting that by the end of 2020, some 330,000 passengers will have passed through the gate, a drastic change from last year’s 762,000.

The airport is currently operating at a low frequency of flights, but is offering every destination it did prior to the pandemic, except for Dallas, which Edwards said may return by October.

Harrisburg International Airport is owned by the Susquehanna Area Regional Airport Authority, which also owns Franklin County, Gettysburg and Capital City airports.

Local payment processor seeks to raise $200M for hospitality industry

With restaurants and other hospitality businesses facing some of the earliest and largest financial losses from COVID-19, one local company established an online resource to help raise more than $200 million for them.

Shift4 Payments, an integrated payment processing solutions company in Hanover Township, Lehigh County, launched Shift4Cares.com, an online resource for government agencies, news outlets and businesses affected by COVID-19. The website offers information on the economic impact of this pandemic and is part of Shift4’s plan to raise more than $200 million nationwide for restaurants and other small businesses — including up to $10 million contributed directly from the company through a gift card initiative.

The states leading the hospitality transaction declines in the wake of COVID-19 are California (91%), Pennsylvania (89%), Texas (89%) and New York (88%). Shift4 Payments, a local company, is working to raise more than $200 million nationwide for restaurants and other small businesses. (PHOTO/SUBMITTED)

Consumers can go to Shift4Cares.com to buy gift cards for their favorite local restaurants and other businesses to provide their favorite establishments with much needed revenue during this difficult time, said Terry Sullivan, chief of staff for Shift4 Payments. For every gift card purchased through the site, Shift4 Payments will contribute an additional 5% to the business — up to $10 million. For example, a $100 gift card purchase on the site would result in $105 for the merchant.

“We are doing what we can to raise awareness,” Sullivan said. “We specialize in hospitality, which is really restaurants and hotels. The pandemic is really having an impact. We are seeing a tremendous decline in payment volumes.”

While the impact is national, Pennsylvania is among those hardest hit.

The states leading the declines are California (91%), Pennsylvania (89%), Texas (89%) and New York (88%). Nationally, restaurant transactions declined from 42 million to 11 million during this time, while hotel transactions declined from 144 million to 20 million.

Data on the site for the last seven days shows that hospitality industry transactions are down significantly when compared to the week of Feb. 2, with restaurant transactions down 74%, hotels down 86% and all other industries down 64%.

Nationwide and state-by-state data is available at Shift4Cares.com.

“We’ve been going through this data and we are seeing how substantial that is,” Sullivan said. “This is just a way to help our customers, our businesses across the country to get much-needed revenue.”

Shift4 Payments also waived many processing fees for its clients, including the fee for the device used for curbside delivery and online orders, he said.

Shift4 processes more than 3.5 billion transactions annually for more than 200,000 businesses nationwide, representing more than $200 billion in payments each year.