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By Sarah Watson January 11, 2021

Pre-pandemic Iowa had largest workforce in state history

If Your Time is short

  • Going into Iowa’s 2021 legislative session, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds says Iowa’s economy was growing and had the largest workforce in history when 2020 began and before the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Iowa had its largest workforce in history at the start of 2020. 
  • The state’s available workforce — regardless of whether or not a person was employed — shrunk after COVID-19 was detected in Iowa in March 2020.

Going into Iowa’s 2021 state Legislature session, Gov. Kim Reynolds made a bid to draw attention to her administration’s pre-pandemic economic record last year, telling reporters that the state had the largest employed workforce in its history when 2020 started.

"We began 2020 last year with our state’s fiscal health strong, our economy was growing, our wages were going up and we had more Iowans working than at any other time in our state history," Reynolds told reporters in a Thursday, Jan. 7, electronic news conference.

Iowa’s first COVID-19 case was detected in March 2020. Although the labor force in Iowa had been steadily increasing, the COVID-19 pandemic marked a reversal of that trend. Iowa’s total civilian labor force and the number of those who were employed declined.

We’ve checked claims about Iowa’s economy pre-pandemic before, though not the particular claim about Iowa boasting its largest employed workforce at the start of 2020. 

Reynolds spokesperson Pat Garrett pointed to Iowa Workforce Development data to back up the claim and a check shows that’s true, though other indicators exist to show when an economy is prospering.

In January 2020, Iowa’s employed workforce totaled 1,704,900 people, a March 16, 2020, Iowa Workforce Development report shows. That’s 600 more people than in the previous month and 33,000 more people than in January 2019. No other month in Iowa’s recorded employment has been higher than that January 2020 figure.

By November 2020, the number of employed Iowans totaled 1,561,600, about 143,000 less than 10 months prior. The total available civilian labor force declined by 93,000 since April 2020.

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Ryan West, deputy director of the Iowa Workforce Development told The Daily Iowan in a phone interview that between October 2019 and February 2020, more than 1.7 million Iowans were employed, the most since the data first became available beginning in 1976. The numbers used, he said, are sourced from monthly reports from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

In the past two years, Iowa has had historically low unemployment rates for the state.

According to the Iowa Workforce Development, nine of the past two decades’ lowest reported monthly unemployment rates were recorded in the last two years. The lowest unemployment rate over the past 20 years was 1.9 percent in October 2018. 

But were wages going up?

The annual mean wage from May 2019, the last available data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, was $47,330, up from the May 2018 average wage of $46,150.

According to a 2019 State of Working Iowa report by the Iowa Policy Project, which since has merged with another organization and has been renamed Common Good Iowa, the median hourly wage went up about 80 cents since 2009 to $18.40, most of which came in the last two years. However, that wage growth has been "slow to come" according to the report. Iowa’s top 10 percent of earners had the highest share of wage growth.

Our ruling

Before COVID-19, the numbers show Iowa’s employed workforce was the largest in the state’s history. But the numbers have declined since the pandemic. We rate the governor’s statement as True.

Our Sources

Zoom news conference with Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds and reporters, Jan. 7, 2021.

The Daily Iowan/PolitiFact Iowa fact check, April 15, 2020.

Phone call with Pat Garrett, spokesperson for Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds.

Iowa Workforce Development monthly report, March 2020.

State of Working Iowa report, Iowa Policy Project, 2019.

Phone interview Ryan West, deputy director of Iowa Workforce Development, Jan. 8, 2021.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, May 2019 State Occupational Employment and Wage Estimates – Iowa, May 2019.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics database.

The Daily Iowan, "UIHC treating second COVID-19 patient, one a case of community spread in Johnson County", by Marissa Payne, March 15, 2020.

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Pre-pandemic Iowa had largest workforce in state history

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