Region’s unemployment, job numbers end year on positive note

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The number of Northeast Tennesseans working in November was far higher than previous months of the pandemic and not far below the level of November 2019.

NE Tennessee claims fall sharply, defying statewide jump

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn, (WJHL) – New and ongoing unemployment claims in Northeast Tennessee dropped last week to their lowest levels since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

That short-term encouraging news follows a report showing the region had almost 12,000 more people working in November than it had in October.

The unemployment weekly data from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development (TDL) was better than the statewide figures, which showed increases in both new and ongoing claims for the week ending Dec. 26.

Ongoing jobless claims in the eight-county region had been stuck in a tight range between 2,566 and 2,586 for the past four weeks, but fell to 2,178. For the first time, the number of people with ongoing unemployment claims is less than double the March 21 figure of 1,165 — the last week before claims began to spike.

That news follows a full-month report from November that showed robust job growth from October. The number of people employed in the region was 217,957 in November compared to 206,198 in October according to TDL monthly labor force estimates.

Nearly 8,000 people returned to the labor force in November as well.

The 217,957 people employed in November is by far the highest monthly total since the pandemic began — besting September’s 207,456.

Local economist David Campbell, a professor at Milligan University, said the recent numbers are encouraging but should be looked at with caution. That large of a surge in people working would primarily come from the service and retail sector, he said — and he finds it a bit befuddling.

“Ultimately you want an explanation for where all these jobs are coming from, because certainly all the numbers suggest that there was a significant rise in the number of jobs for November,” Campbell said.

He said it was “remarkable” that the labor force — people either working or actively looking for work and thus considered officially unemployed — grew by 8,000 in a month.

“What we really need is more granular data on where the jobs are being created.

“The numbers for November definitely are encouraging, particularly from the depths of what we saw earlier on, but until we get additional data … we should be cautious in our projections moving forward.”

Recent regional trend better than state’s

Numbers can easily fluctuate, making short-term comparisons subject to change. With that in mind, as the new year approached Northeast Tennessee’s ongoing unemployment claims had improved more compared to pre-pandemic than the state’s as a whole.

Statewide, 45,226 Tennesseans had continuing claims last week. That was a slight increase from the previous week and is 2.8 times higher than the 16,098 total going into the pandemic.

The statewide average of ongoing unemployment claims was 178% above its pre-pandemic level for the four weeks of December. Northeast Tennessee’s average better, but still more than double the pre-pandemic mark.

Northeast Tennessee’s 2,178 is 1.9 times higher than its pre-pandemic level.

Averaging ongoing claims over the past four weeks, the region’s total of 2,475 ongoing claims is 2.1 times higher than pre-pandemic.

The state’s is 2.8 times higher.

The total number of people employed, though, rose by a similar percentage statewide from October to November.

Still no shortage of suffering

While encouraging, November’s numbers are preliminary, and the region is ending the year with many more people struggling with joblessness.

The number of people unemployed in November 2020 through the eight-county region was 12,202. That’s more than 4,000 more than the same month of 2019.

And while Congress passed a new stimulus bill that extends unemployment benefits and provides a new add-on to the state unemployment rate, TDOL has not yet provided guidance on applying.

Without such guidance, thousands of workers like Randy Baker, a Johnson City Uber driver who’s been unemployed since March, unsure of whether their benefits that expired last Friday will skip at least one week.

Baker, a single dad who made up to $700 a week driving and needs the flexibility of Uber hours as a parent, hasn’t been able to find any information on TDOL’s unemployment portal. He said he’s concerned about both missing a week of pay — even though the gig worker amount is just $120 — and about having to completely reapply.

TDOL’s Chris Cannon responded Tuesday to a question from News Channel 11 about next steps by saying “states have received very little guidance from (the federal labor department) of the modified federal unemployment programs, so there are still many unknowns.

“We still do not have the next steps claimants need to take. Hopefully, we will have more information to share in the coming days.”

A follow up question emailed Thursday got an out of office reply.

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