As anticipated, Tennessee’s first set of county unemployment rates to take March’s coronavirus-inspired business closures and layoffs into account were brutal — double-digit jobless rates almost across the board, with as many as 3 in 10 out of work in some areas.
But the Covid-19 impact on working Tennesseans was underscored by the new unemployment picture: Areas that traditionally have the best local economies in the state were hit harder, while rural areas that typically have higher rates of joblessness faired better.
Prior to the start of the coronavirus outbreak in March — and for many months before — the state’s 10 lowest unemployment rates were mostly centered around Nashville, while the 10 highest unemployment rates were scattered throughout rural parts of the state.
But things shifted in April, the first month of unemployment data to be tainted by the Covid-19 pandemic. No longer are the lowest unemployment rates around Nashville, which has been particularly hard-hit by the virus. Instead, they’re in rural Tennessee — where jobs were less likely to be impacted. In fact, three of the counties with the state’s 10 lowest unemployment rates border Scott County: Pickett, Fentress and Morgan counties.
Of course, everything is relative in the era of coronavirus. Unemployment is staggering even in the least-impacted areas. Fayette, Weakley and Hardeman counties were the only three of Tennessee’s 95 counties with single-digit unemployment. Fentress County had the state’s fourth-lowest unemployment rate, at 10.1%. Joblessness was 10.7% in both Pickett and Morgan counties.
The state’s hardest-hit local economy, in terms of joblessness, is the tourism mecca of Sevier County. With virtually every tourism function shuttered by the coronavirus outbreak, joblessness there soared to 29.5%, with nearly 1 in every 3 workers out of work. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, unemployment was less than 4% in Sevier County.
Joblessness in Scott County
The unemployment rate in Scott County soared to 17.5% in April. That’s not quite as high as it was during the immediate aftermath of the Great Recession, in early 2011, but it’s well on its way. In January 2011, Scott County’s jobless rate briefly climbed above 23%.
Scott County’s unemployment rate was already climbing, before the coronavirus impact began. Although the Independent Herald questioned the seemingly arbitrary nature of the numbers without a response from the TN Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development, the local jobless rate was reported at 6.4% in March, the third-highest unemployment rate in the state.
The fast-rising unemployment rate, which climbed from a near-record-low 3.7% in December to 6.4% in March, wasn’t entirely due to lost jobs. Although there were significantly fewer Scott Countians working in January (7,897) than in December (8,355), as is normal for the post-holiday season, there were actually more Scott Countians employed in March than in February — even though the local jobless rate jumped from 5.1% to 6.4%.
However discouraging the local unemployment rate may have been in March, however, it was nothing compared to April’s numbers. According to information earlier made available by the Dept. of Labor, the March jobs survey was conducted the week before the coronavirus outbreak began forcing layoffs and closures. April’s jobs survey was not protected by timing, however, and found nearly 900 lost jobs in Scott County.
In March, there were 7,894 Scott Countians working. In April, that number dipped to 7,016. Unemployment climbed from 536 in March to 1,490 in April.
Despite that heavy impact, local employment in April was not far behind where it was as recently as the start of 2017. In January of that year, there were only 7,280 working Scott Countians.
During the height of economic setback following the last recession, there were fewer than 7,000 working Scott Countians from mid 2009 all the way into 2016. Unemployment during that economic downturn climbed to as high as 2,000 in January 2011.
The last time the local unemployment rate was as high as it was in April was in June 2013, when the jobless rate in Scott County was 18.1%.
Unemployment in Campbell County was not far behind Scott County in April. The jobless rate there was 16.8%. In Anderson County, the unemployment rate was 14.9%.
Several counties across the state featured unemployment rates greater than 20%. Cocke County was just behind Sevier County, at 25.6%. Grundy County checked in at 25.3%, followed by Rhea County at 24.5%, Warren County at 24.3% and Marshall County at 24.0%. Perry County’s unemployment rate was 23.3%, DeKalb County had a jobless rate of 22.4%, Maury County’s jobless rate was 22.0%, and Monroe County’s jobless rate was 21.9%.
Other counties with unemployment rates greater than 20% included Franklin County at 21.1%, Lewis County at 20.0% and Van Buren County at 20.1%.
In the state’s major metropolitan areas, Memphis faired best at 12.7%, followed by Chattanooga at 13.3%, Knoxville at 13.5%, and Nashville at 15.2%. Those rankings are a complete reversal from recent norms, which have found Nashville with the state’s lowest jobless rate among the four major cities, and Memphis at the back of the pack.
The way back?
While many of the businesses that were closed by government mandate have now reopened, it remains to be seen if the employment numbers will look much better in May. A report released by the Dept. of Labor & Workforce Development Thursday morning showed that there were 26,041 new claims filed in Tennessee for the week ending May 23. While that is the lowest number of new weekly claims since the pandemic began, it remains more than 10 times greater than the 2,702 new claims filed the week ending March 14, as the coronavirus shutdown was beginning.
There were 310,126 continued claims filed for the week ending March 23, only slightly less than the 314,487 filed the previous week. At the highest point, there were 324,543 continued claims filed for the week ending April 25.