HELENA, Montana — State officials for the first time are compiling monthly unemployment rates for the seven Indian reservations.
The reservation statistics previously were compiled annually, which wasn't allowing for the best economic development decisions, Department of Labor and Industry chief economist Barbara Wagner said Friday.
"Reservations were struggling to find accurate numbers, and some were creating their own methods," Wagner said. The methodologies for producing the numbers are now aligned with those used to determine unemployment rates for the state's 56 counties, she said.
The Flathead Reservation had the lowest unemployment rate of the seven in May at 4.3 percent, while the Blackfeet Reservation had the highest at 11 percent. The others included the Fort Peck Reservation at 4.9 percent; the Crow Reservation at 8.5; the Fort Belknap Reservation at 8.9; and both the Northern Cheyenne and Rocky Boy reservations at 9.6.
The numbers were released Friday in a report that includes Montana's statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 3.9 percent for May, down from 4 percent in April. The national unemployment rate was 5.5 percent in May.
Reservation unemployment rates are not seasonally adjusted and should be compared to the May unadjusted statewide rate of 3.4 percent.
The May unemployment rates on the reservations were lower than in May 2014, which Wagner said could be caused by an increase in construction or other seasonal work.
She cautioned that it's too soon to draw meaningful conclusions from the reservation numbers. "We are now providing monthly data so we can start making conclusions about what is going on," Wagner said.
She also said unemployment rates only measure the percent of the labor force that is unemployed, including people who are employed or looking for work. It doesn't take into account people who have given up looking for a job, for example, Wagner said.
Democratic Rep. George Kipp III of Heart Butte spurred the Department of Labor and Industry to include reservations in the monthly unemployment numbers, Wagner said.
"This is something I've wanted to do for a long time, but I have to give Kipp credit for bringing it up," she said." I think that we are in many ways on the leading edge of providing that information."
Wagner said she isn't aware of other states producing Indian reservation unemployment statistics.
Montanans also experienced what economists call real wage growth in 2014, Wagner said. The average annual wage in the state increased by 3.5 percent last year to $38,875, while inflation was only 1.6 percent.
"Montana added roughly 1,500 more jobs last month," Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. "Our strong growth and low unemployment are driving up wages, meaning more Montanans are working and putting more money in their pockets on payday."