Tennessee unemployment claims rise 1,346% amid COVID-19 pandemic

Jonathan Roberts • Mar 26, 2020 at 6:51 PM

When China Hill lost her job at Mall Jump in The Mall at Johnson City, she was disappointed, but grateful she had a second job at Great American Cookies to fall back on.

For about a week, Hill was getting along OK.

Then Monday happened.

As the situation surrounding the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) grew more serious in Northeast Tennessee, The Mall at Johnson City was forced to react as businesses inside the mall closed — first by cutting their hours of operation on March 18, then finally closing the mall “until further notice” on Monday.

“With my first job I was kind of upset about that, but then I was like: ‘Well, I still have my other job’,” Hill said. “Then when they had said the mall was closing down, I thought about it and prayed about it and figured God had it in his hands — that’s the only thing I can do, honestly.”

Hill is among the millions of Americans who’ve lost their jobs since the COVID-19 pandemic began, with a record-breaking number of Americans filing for unemployment last week.

In a call with reporters on Thursday, Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee said unemployment claims in the state are being filed at a record pace. Of the 3.3 million unemployment claims filed last week, 39,096 were Tennesseans — representing a 1,346% increase in unemployment claims in the state over the previous week. In Northeast Tennessee, 1,616 claims were filed.

“Every day sets a new record,” he said. “Every week we’ll set a new record. We are in an incredible rapid downturn in our economy that will profoundly financially and economically affect Tennesseans from one end of the state to the other.”

Lee said state officials are doing everything they can to mitigate those economic hardships, and that the state is working through the Department of Labor, Department of Human Services and the Department of Health to provide access to relief for the unemployed, parents who need child care and others who have experienced financial troubles because of COVID-19.

East Tennessee State University economist Fred Mackara said that, while the number of unemployment claims has “shown to be a reliable leading indicator of economic activity,” it’s “not necessarily representative of what is going on.” 

“It’s going to be very ugly and very difficult to deal with; we’re in for some pretty hard times and this figure was really very shocking, but what I’m really interested in seeing is what’s going to happen next week,” Mackara said. “This week, there was a very big rush of layoffs and things like that — I don’t know how long of a tail that has.

“I expect it will be something of a pretty sharp decline, but it’s still going to be a big number relative to what we’ve been used to for some time,” he added.

Hill said she hasn’t yet filed for unemployment, as she’s hoping the mall will reopen sooner rather than later. If it doesn’t open it’s doors by Monday though, Hill said she’ll be forced to file for unemployment and begin a job search.

“It’s kind of hard because I have bills and stuff to pay for and I can’t pay my bills if I don’t get paid,” Hill said. “It’s just kind of sad that I don’t get to work because that’s my income everyday and you need money to (do anything).

“It’s kind of sad, but I do enjoy the fact I get to spend quality time with my family — that’s the only good thing that’s happened,” she said.

Press Staff Writer David Floyd contributed to this report.

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