In what was described as “historic highs," the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development’s countywide unemployment statistics for April showed a stunning increase in unemployment for each of the state’s 95 counties in the wake of the business closures caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The state's seasonally adjusted rate of 14.7% surpassed the previous all-time high figure of 12.9% in January 1983, the state labor department reported.
While the historic spike in job losses affected some counties more drastically than others, no area of Tennessee escaped the pandemic’s effect on the state’s workforce, the state labor department said.
But for Cleveland and Bradley County, the sobering numbers caused by a mix of permanent layoffs and temporary furloughs could have been worse.
For April, the combined unemployment rate for the city and county was 13.5%, a more than 10-point increase over the month of March, as well as the same month last year.
While nonetheless disturbing, the numbers for Cleveland and Bradley County do not approach the same unemployment rates recorded by other counties, where the percentages are more than 20%, with one county, Sevier — where the local economy is heavily dependent on the influx of tourism dollars — was rocked by nearly 30% in job losses.
For Bradley County alone, the unemployment rate was 13.5%, compared to 3.3% in March. As of April, of the 50,091 members of the labor force, 6,787 were without jobs.
Bradley County’s all-time high was 10.5% in January 2010.
The situation was more dire in Cleveland, where the rate jumped from 3.6% in March to 14.8%. In April last year, the city was boasting a 3.6% jobless rate. Of the city's nearly 21,000-member labor force, 3,076 of those workers were unemployed by last month.
Doug Berry, vice president for economic development at the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, said the fact that the city and county were among the top third in the state for the lowest number of job losses was encouraging, although he said “his heart goes out” to those who have lost their jobs.
Unlike their statewide counterparts, Cleveland and Bradley County’s economies are bolstered by a sundry mix of manufacturing companies that produce industrial and consumer goods.
Berry said Cleveland and Bradley County’s numbers are a good indicator of the diversity of the region’s manufacturing base, especially consumer-goods production, which remained strong despite the economic downturn.
“The big message here is that we need to continue building a broad, diverse economic base,” Berry said.
Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks said business closures in the personal service and retail sectors had a negative impact on the city’s jobless rate.
“We had a drastic shutdown in the service industry,” Brooks said. “Restaurants, nail salons, hair salons, and health and fitness. Thankfully, they are now back open and operating safely.”
Despite the increased unemployment rate, Brooks looked for the silver lining.
“Thankfully, we are in the low teens,” he said. “I am grateful we also have a strong manufacturing base and many of our plants like Olin Chemical, Duracell and Renfro remained open because they were considered essential businesses."
Several counties across the state fared much worse last month than Bradley County.
Tourism mecca Sevier County posted the state’s highest unemployment rate for April — 29.5% — representing a spike of 26 percentage points when compared to its revised March rate of 3.5%, according to the state labor department.
It was the highest unemployment rate in the state.
In neighboring Cocke County, the second-highest jobless rate in April, was 25.6% — a 20.9 percentage-point increase from the previous month.
Grundy County ranked third highest with a rate of 25.3%, which is a 21.1 percentage-point spike when compared to March’s rate.
Fayette County had Tennessee’s lowest unemployment rate in April.
“At 9.4%, the county’s rate increased by 6.1 percentage points when compared to its revised March rate of 3.3%, the state labor department reported.
Weakley County had the second-lowest unemployment rate for the month at 9.6%, followed by Hardeman County at 9.7%.
State labor department officials said Fayette, Weakley and Hardeman were the only counties in the state with unemployment rates below 10% in April.
Polk County recorded a 13.4% rate. Hamilton County posted a 14.4% jobless rate.
When comparing Tennessee’s three largest cities, Nashville had the highest unemployment rate in April.
“The city’s rate of 15.9% is a 13.5 percentage point increase over its revised March rate of 2.4%,” state labor department officials said. “Memphis recorded a rate of 14.3%, a spike of 10.1 percentage points from the previous month, and Knoxville’s April rate of 14.7% is an 11.8 percentage point jump.”
Unlike the statewide unemployment rate, county unemployment statistics are not seasonally adjusted, which means that factors such as "weather, holidays, the opening and closing of schools and other recurring events from an economic time series," are not taken into account.
Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis said that while the county’s 13.5% unemployment placed the county in a better position than others across the state, he said it was still “definitely not good.”
However, he said the county’s diverse manufacturing base helped prop up the local economy as it did during the last recession.
“It helped us in 2008 and 2009, and it is helping us now,” he said.
And as service businesses emerge from their hibernation caused by the pandemic, Davis said many are seeking employees, which should further decrease unemployment rates as local residents return to work.
“They are begging for employees,” he said.
However, he said filling those open positions may take some time to fill.
“Some are afraid to go back to work,” he said.