Troubling trend: New jobless claims up regionally, down across state

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New weekly jobless claims have trended slightly downward in Tennessee the past four weeks compared to the previous four, but are up in Northeast Tennessee.

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – New claims for unemployment benefits finally took a significant tumble from the week before across Tennessee Thursday. It was a different story in Northeast Tennessee.

During a week that saw Kennametal in Washington County announce it would shutter its local operations and Domtar in Kingsport say it will be two-and-a-half years before it reopens, weekly claims 18 percent. Statewide the drop was 35 percent.

It’s part of a pattern that goes back to at least early June.

In the four weeks ended Thursday (July 13-Aug. 1), new jobless claims were up 18 percent regionally compared to the prior four-week period. The rests of the state saw a 4 percent decline.

The gap was even wider in Sullivan County, where claims are up 44 percent for the past four weeks compared to the previous four.

The statistics caught the attention of Northeast Regional Economic Partnership CEO Mitch Miller.

“I’ve heard about some employers doing well and needing to hire people, but I feel like we’ve always kind of lagged behind from a regional perspective with a lack of ability for us to really kind of have that cohesive effort to work together, so it doesn’t surprise me at all,” Miller said.

He mentioned Crown Laboratories and LPI Inc. as two local companies that are in “growth mode,” but acknowledged bright spots like those aren’t likely to absorb the massive numbers of unemployed Northeast Tennesseans.

With 12,724 people still unemployed across the eight-county region Thursday compared to fewer than 1,200 in mid-March, the pain extends far beyond the manufacturing sector, Miller said.

“The impact on the retail side, which a lot of our communities are heavily dependent upon, it’s worrisome,” Miller said.

“Until you see something like a vaccine or really just a downward trend in numbers I think this is going to be something that’s going to take some time.”

New weekly claims are a leading indicator for ongoing claims. That raises the possibility that the region’s ongoing claims could stall at a high level or drop more slowly than the rest of the state if re-hiring doesn’t accelerate.

During the four weeks of June 13 to July 4, Northeast Tennessee saw a total of 4,321 new unemployment claims and that was 5.3 percent of the state’s total. In the most recent four weeks there were 5,104 new claims across the region representing 6.4 percent of the total statewide.

While that may not seem like a big jump, it amounts to a 21.6 percent increase in the share of new claims statewide that came from Northeast Tennessee.

Miller said the pandemic’s challenges offer confirmation that the region’s various counties and cities would benefit from a more cohesive approach to economic development. That subject of regionalism has returned to the forefront with a series of recent meetings among local leaders but no firm commitments to consolidation have yet been made.

“It doesn’t surprise me that we’re off a little bit from the state level but to the degree that we’re off is really concerning. I think it just illustrates the fact that we have to address these issues together and not be siloed into a one-county approach or a one-city approach.”

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