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Northeast Tennessee sees downward trend in new unemployment claims

David Floyd • Updated May 28, 2020 at 8:38 PM

After experiencing a rapid increase during the onset of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, which forced many businesses to temporarily close, new unemployment claims both in Northeast Tennessee and statewide are now on a downward trend.

The numbers, however, are still substantially higher than pre-coronavirus levels.

Statewide, Tennessee saw 26,041 new unemployment claims filed for the week ending May 23, far from the 2,702 new claims the state received during the week of March 14, before the start of the spike.

“26,000 new claims is still an enormous number of people filing new claims for unemployment,” said Tennessee Department of Labor spokesperson Chris Cannon. “That typically would be several months worth of claims during a regular period of unemployment.”

Beginning in mid-March, new unemployment filings in Northeast Tennessee — an eight-county region that includes Washington, Sullivan, Carter and Unicoi counties — increased to a peak of 6,419 in the week ending April 4 before starting a general decline. Most recently, 902 new unemployment claims were filed during the week ending May 23. During the week of March 14, 81 unemployment claims were filed in Northeast Tennessee.

Statewide figures show a similar trend, with new unemployment claims peaking during the week ending April 4 at 116,141 before dropping to the level they are now. About 558,000 new unemployment claims have been filed statewide since March 15. Meanwhile, continued claims across Tennessee, those that are still active and are certified weekly, have remained above 300,000 since the week ending April 25.

Regionally, Cannon said there has been no clear downward trend in continued claims in Northeast Tennessee. On May 2, Northeast Tennessee had 17,393 continuing claims, which rose to 18,003 on May 9 before dropping to 16,133 on May 23.

Cannon said the state is now using federal CARES Act funding to bolster Tennessee’s unemployment trust fund, which the state government uses to fund statewide unemployment benefits. During the week ending May 23, the state distributed more than $375 million in total payments, all of which came from the federal government.

“We’re using (federal money) at least through the end of June to bolster the unemployment trust fund so it doesn’t fall below $1 billion, which would trigger higher taxes for employers,” Cannon said.

All unemployment benefits in Tennessee have been funded through CARES Act funding or U.S. Department of Labor funding since May 14.

Tennessee Department of Finance Commissioner Butch Eley said on May 12 that if unemployment claims continued at the pace they’d progressed during prior weeks and the state didn’t replenish the fund using stimulus money, projections showed Tennessee would extinguish the trust fund by the end of the year. Eley said he didn’t believe unemployment claims would maintain that momentum.

Looking to the future

Like Tennessee’s data, national figures, according to the Associated Press, show new unemployment filings across the U.S. are also gradually decreasing, with about 2.1 million claims filed in the week ending May 23.

Fred Mackara, an associate professor of economics at East Tennessee State University, said the national trend in new filings could indicate that the economy and labor market is improving, but on the other hand, it could indicate that employers are running out of people to lay off.

“The problem may be that as businesses are folding, they’re running out of workers to lay off, so that may be one thing that is contributing to the decline in the number of new claims,” Mackara said. “Probably it’s a combination of both. Yes, the economy probably is starting to claw its way back a little bit, and we’re talking about very marginal changes at this point.”

Mackara predicts the momentum of the economy’s decline is slowing, but said that doesn’t mean it has completely stopped.