Tennessee reaches highest ever monthly jobless rate

Associated Press • Updated May 21, 2020 at 4:24 PM

Tennessee reached its highest monthly unemployment rate ever in April as the state managed public safety concerns raised by the new coronavirus outbreak by closing nonessential businesses, a move that has led to more than a half-million jobless claims.

The Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development reported Thursday that the preliminary seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for April was 14.7%. That represents an “unprecedented spike” of 11.4 percentage points when compared to March’s revised rate of 3.3%, the department said in a news release.

Orders from Gov. Bill Lee and city and county officials led to closings of businesses throughout Tennessee as part of the mass response to the new coronavirus outbreak. Since March 15, the number of people who have lost their jobs and have been seeking or receiving payouts from the federal and state government in Tennessee has totaled more than 532,000, the department said.

The state’s highest seasonally adjusted rate had been 12.9%, which occurred in December 1982 and January 1983, the department said.

Total nonfarm employment in Tennessee decreased by 376,900 jobs between March and April. The largest reductions occurred in the leisure and hospitality, manufacturing, and professional and business services sectors, labor officials said.

More than 28,600 jobless Tennessee residents filed new claims for unemployment benefits during the week that ended Saturday. More than $355 million in unemployment benefits was paid out last week, with more than $295 million of that total coming in the form of federal funds distributed under the federal CARES Act, the emergency assistance package created to deal with financial effects from the virus response.

The rest of the money came from a trust fund used by the state to pay unemployment benefits, the labor department said. New claims filed last week dipped slightly from the week before, when more than 29,300 were filed.

The process of filing for and receiving unemployment payouts has frustrated jobless Tennessee residents who’ve complained about waiting more than a month to receive benefits. Problems include employers who were slow to respond to claims, confusion about who can receive funds, trouble with the state’s unemployment website, and an inability to get a claims agent on the phone in a timely manner.

Among the businesses laying off workers is The Guesthouse at Graceland, the hotel located at the tourist attraction centered on the life and career of late singer and actor Elvis Presley in Memphis. The hotel filed a notice with the department that it is letting go 101 workers as it converts furloughs to layoffs. The business may re-hire laid off workers if needed, the notice said.

Tennessee cities have begun a gradual process of reopening businesses, including places for musicians to perform in the country music capital of Nashville.

Mayor John Cooper announced Thursday that the city will move to the second phase of its reopening plan starting next week. This means restaurants and retail stores will be allowed to open at 75% capacity on Monday. Salons, barbershops, gyms and other close-contact businesses can reopen at half-capacity, Cooper said.

Live music will also be allowed at restaurants, but only if there are no more than two performers on the stage and they remain at least 6 feet apart. However, bars and dance floors will remain closed.

“Nashville can have a bit of a graduation and move on to phase two of the road map for reopening,” Cooper said during a media briefing.

Lee has already lifted similar restrictions for most of the state. Most recently the state issued new guidance that would allow large, non-contact attractions — such as concert venues, water parks, zoos and large museums — to reopen under warnings to protect employees and customers to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Tennessee has reported 18,961 cases of COVID-19 and 313 deaths.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up within weeks. For some, especially older adults and those with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness and be life-threatening.

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