Jobless rate at 7.5%: Polk rate drops to 9.8 percent
by RICK NORTO, Associate Editor
Mar 17, 2013 | 947 views | 0 0 comments | 3 3 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Bradley County’s hiring bubble finally burst in January as the unemployment rate headed north by a full percentage point to 7.5, but it came to no one’s surprise, according to a state labor market analyst who monitors much of the Southeast Tennessee region.

Up from 6.5 percent in December, the year-opening hike followed normal seasonal trends, the Tennessee Department of Labor & Workforce Development’s Larry Green told the Cleveland Daily Banner.

The adage “misery loves company” might come into play as Bradley joined 93 other counties across the state with rising jobless rates. The only exception in 95 jurisdictions came surprisingly in neighboring Polk County where the unemployment mark actually dropped from 10 percent in December to 9.8 a month later.

Although Bradley County’s increase brought a year’s worth of positive momentum to a screeching halt, the news isn’t so alarming when put into perspective. In January 2012, the jobless rate was 8.2 percent, which represented a nine-tenths of 1 percent increase over the month before. The rate in January 2011 was 9.6 percent which rose by 1.2 percent from December 2010.

“Bradley County has come down a good bit,” Green stressed. “It definitely is heading in the right direction.”

Another promising note is that Bradley County’s current 7.5 percent rate rests in a two-way tie with Franklin County as being the state’s 15th lowest jobless mark for January.

Rates in surrounding counties — excluding Polk — also showed significant increases, including the larger Hamilton County whose 7.2 mark in December shot up to 8.2 percent in January. Other local rates included McMinn County, 9.5 percent, up from 8.6; Meigs, 10.6, up from 9.2; Monroe, 11.1, up from 9.9; Rhea, 11.9, up from 10.4; and Marion, 9.9, up from 8.4.

“All of Bradley County’s major industries were either stable or showed a slight decrease in employment which we would anticipate for this time of year,” Green said. “It wasn’t anything that was unusual or out of line.”

Industries showing slight declines included manufacturing, construction, temporary services, leisure and hospitality (tourism), and the biggest drop in workers — which was expected — came in retail trade. The latter represents predominately part-time or temporary workers hired by retailers for the busier holiday season, most of whom are traditionally laid off in January.

“Unemployment in January almost always goes up,” Green noted. “It’s seasonal. We don’t see any signs of a trend in this area.”

News last week that Resolute Forest Products is idling a newsprint machine, a decision that will cost 150 workers their jobs, may or may not impact local unemployment rates, Green analyzed. It depends on when the layoffs begin, and within how short or long a time frame.

Any Resolute layoffs that began last week will be calculated into the March unemployment rates for impacted communities whether it’s Bradley, McMinn, Polk, Monroe, Meigs or others. Resolute, which is the former AbitibiBowater and Bowater Inc. paper mill operation in southern McMinn County, draws its workforce from multiple counties.

“With Resolute right over the [Bradley County] line, you probably know two dozen people who work there,” Green said. “I know I do.”

Last week’s announcement reported the layoffs likely will span several months. If that’s the case, the overall effect in the area will be minimal, he said.

“If a layoff of 150 people takes place over several months, it won’t have a large impact on the unemployment rate,” Green advised. “McMinn County has a sizeable labor force, and hopefully, some of those people will be able to find other jobs.”

He added, “However, if it all happens in one month, then it might be noticeable [in the collective jobless rate for each impacted county].”

January numbers showed Bradley County with a total labor force of 50,080. Of this number, 46,300 had jobs, leaving an unemployed balance of 3,780.

Across the state, unemployment rates rose in 94 counties and dropped in just the one. The month saw 43 counties with jobless marks ranging from 5 to 9.9 percent, and 52 counties had rates of 10 percent or higher.

The state’s lowest unemployment figures were found in Williamson County, 5.2 percent; Lincoln, 6.3; Sumner, Rutherford and Knox, 6.5; avidson, 6.6; Cheatham, 6.8; Wilson and Washington, 7; and Loudon, 7.1 percent.

The state’s highest jobless marks came in Scott County, 18.1; Lauderdale, 14.3; Pickett, 14.1; Perry, 13.7; Gibson, 13.5; Carroll, 13.4; Obion and Cocke, 12.8; and Henderson and Van Buren, 12.6 percent.

Looking ahead, Green said the months of February and March don’t generally fluctuate significantly up or down.

“Hopefully, when construction picks up in the spring, and tourism gets going ... that’ll help Bradley County and Polk County,” he said. Although Polk County earns a lot of tourism dollars from the rafting season each summer, Cleveland hotels and motels are often the destination for lodging, and area restaurants are also big beneficiaries, Green noted.

He also pointed to increased area hiring that is expected in both the short and long terms at Whirlpool Cleveland Division, Renfro Inc. and Publix, among others. Just those three could account for as many as 360 new jobs. Whirlpool expects to bring on 100 with a new assembly line in April at its new plant on Benton Pike; Renfro is renovating and expanding its hosiery plant which will eventually net another 160 jobs; and Publix Supermarkets is expected to bring on about 100 when the giant grocer opens on Huff Parkway later this year.

Of Polk County’s surprising drop in unemployment in January, the state analyst called it a phenomenon that sometimes occurs in counties where a large number of residents commute to jobs in neighboring counties.

Polk County’s employment numbers went down 150 which by reason means unemployment numbers should go up. Instead, the jobless figure went down by 40.

“There were no layoffs [in Polk County],” Green said. “We just have a lot of commuters in Polk who drive into other communities for work.” Some were laid off in January and they filed for unemployment benefits in their home county of Polk.

Another contributor to the Polk County numbers is that Green’s department has tracked 50 residents there who are counted as “discouraged workers.” According to Green, it’s called the Discouraged Worker Syndrome and it refers to laid-off workers who have grown so frustrated at not finding full-time jobs that they have stopped looking. Subsequently, they are not included in the county’s total reported labor force.

“The unemployment rate did not go down in Polk because of hiring, but because of commuters being laid off and some unemployed people dropping out of the labor force,” he explained. “I would like to say there was a lot of hiring, but there wasn’t.”