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JOBLESS RATES STILL BLEAK: Pike County remains lower than national average

About 1.5 million laid-off workers applied for U.S. unemployment benefits last week, evidence that many Americans are still losing their jobs even as the economy appears to be slowly recovering with more businesses partially reopening.

While across the country and across the state of Alabama unemployment numbers are very high, the area of Pike County is lower than the Alabama state average.

During the last week of May, Pike County had 142 initial unemployment claims, and now we are down 24 from what was previously recorded. There are also 323 job postings in Pike County.

Dana Sanders, the president of the Pike County Chamber of Commerce, believes that things are starting to look positive. “This is definitely a time of transition where everyone is still trying to figure out their new ‘normal’. We still have some work to do, but everyday we’re getting better,” she said.

Sanders explained that it has been important and valuable to have a strong community that works together and to have the diverse economic climate that we have here.

“I think that our residents have done a good job supporting businesses throughout this trying time, and we hope to continue to have a healthy economic climate,” Sanders said.

Katie Thomas, the Business and Industry Relations Manager of Southeast Alabama Works, explained that there are a variety of job openings in many different fields from manufacturing to health care to the food service industry. There are plenty of opportunities for those who are motivated to find a job.

“There are still people out of work, but we have lots of businesses who are actively hiring right now who need employees,” Thomas said.

Thomas also explained that the reason businesses are struggling now is because of the extra federal money that was added to unemployment checks in Alabama, but those benefits are set to expire at the end of next month if nothing changes.

“Hopefully that will give business the room they need and an opportunity to build up their work force,” Thomas said.

The Alabama Work Force Council sent out a survey asking questions about what the business climate was looking like and if businesses were expecting to lay off people or have any lost revenue. According to Thomas, those who responded in the region of Southeast Alabama all had positive outlooks.

“Overall, the business climate is expected to turn around in the next three to six months,” Thomas said. “Throughout our region and Pike County in particular our unemployment numbers are not as bad as what we’re seeing across the rest of the state.”

While Pike County seems to be getting on the right track, other areas around the country still have a ways to go.

The latest figure from the Labor Department released on Thursday marked the 10th straight weekly decline in applications for jobless aid since they peaked in mid-March when the coronavirus hit hard. Still, the pace of layoffs remains historically high.

The total number of people who are receiving unemployment aid fell slightly, a sign that some people who were laid off when restaurants, retail chains and small businesses suddenly shut down have been recalled to work.

The figures are “consistent with a labor market that has begun what will be a slow and difficult healing process,” said Nancy Vanden Houten, an economist at Oxford Economics. “Still, initial jobless claims remain at levels that at the start of the year might have seemed unthinkable.”

Last week’s jobs report showed that employers added 2.5 million jobs in May, an unexpected increase that suggested that the job market has bottomed out.

But the recovery has begun slowly.

Though the unemployment rate unexpectedly declined from 14.7%, it is still a high 13.3%. And even with the May hiring gain, just one in nine jobs that were lost in March and April have returned. Nearly 21 million people are officially classified as unemployed.

Even those figures don’t capture the full scope of the damage to the job market. Including people the government said had been erroneously categorized as employed in the May jobs report and those who lost jobs but didn’t look for new ones, 32.5 million people are out of work, economists estimate. That would have raised May’s unemployment rate to 19.7%.

Thursday’s report also shows that an additional 706,000 people applied for jobless benefits last week under a new program for self-employed and gig workers that made them eligible for aid for the first time. These figures aren’t adjusted for seasonal variations, so the government doesn’t include them in the official count.

The weekly reports on applications for unemployment benefits track layoffs. But they don’t directly account for hiring, which can offset layoffs. The surprise job gain in May suggests that some employers are recalling laid-off workers.

Private real-time data also points to steady, if modest, rehiring. Data from Kronos, whose software tracks workers’ hours, shows that the number of shifts worked has recovered steadily since bottoming in mid-April. Shifts worked have risen 25% since then, recovering nearly half the work that was lost to the pandemic-induced business shutdowns.

“The growth in shifts worked … indicates that furloughed employees are being called back to work as each state opens up,” said Dave Gilbertson, a Kronos executive.

Twenty-four states reported a rise in applications for jobless aid last week, up from just four the week before, though the state data isn’t adjusted for seasonal trends so it can be volatile. California, New York and Massachusetts reported sharp increases. Florida, Georgia and Texas, some of the earliest states to reopen their economies, reported large declines. In February, the economy fell into a deep recession, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the association of economists that is the official arbiter of recessions.

The Federal Reserve estimated Wednesday that the economy will shrink 6.5% this year. That would be, by far, the deepest annual contraction on records dating to World War II.

Even as restaurants, bars and gyms reopen, they are doing so at lower capacity. And consumer spending on such services remains far below what it was before the viral outbreak.

Unemployment benefits are providing significant support for jobless Americans, with total payments having reached $94 billion in May — six times the previous record set in 2010 just after the previous recession. This time, the benefits include an additional $600 a week from the federal government.