Northeast Tennessee’s jobless claims still aren’t entirely back to normal |

This time last year, thousands of people in Northeast Tennessee were filing for unemployment every week.

Today, hundreds of people in Northeast Tennessee are filing for unemployment every week, and although that marks a dramatic decrease, residents are still seeking jobless benefits at a rate a few times higher than before the pandemic.

That’s happening statewide, too.

“Our spike in the highest number of initial claims was April 4 of 2020, when statewide we had over 116,000 people file for unemployment during that one week,” said Chris Cannon, a spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.

“Fast forward a year later, obviously the situation is much different and the numbers are much lower, but they’re still high and higher than they were.”

What do the numbers say?

For the week ending April 3, 770 people in the eight-county region of Northeast Tennessee filed for unemployment benefits, according to data from the Tennessee Department of Labor.

During the week ending April 4, 2020, that figure was 6,521, which is still the region’s highest number of jobless claims filed in a single week since the start of the pandemic.

For comparison, 132 people filed for unemployment during the week of March 14, 2020 — before the economic effects of the outbreak started showing up in those numbers.

With the exception of a brief bump in January, weekly unemployment claims have consistently stayed below 1,000 filings in Northeast Tennessee since August. At the same time, new weekly unemployment filings have not dipped below 300 since last March.

Of the approximately 60,000 unemployment filings made in Northeast Tennessee since the week ending March 21, 2020, the highest number (20,000) have come from Sullivan County, which is the most populous county in the region.

Washington County has clocked the second most at 15,000, and Greene County stands at third with nearly 10,000 claims filed.

Statewide, 10,847 residents filed new claims last week, which is a significant drop from the high of 116,141 claims filed during the week of April 4, 2020. But, like Northeast Tennessee, the most recent statewide numbers are still at least a few times higher than they were during the week ending March 14, when 2,702 residents filed for unemployment.

At large, Tennesseans have filed more than one million unemployment claims since March 15.

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Why are the numbers still high?

Cannon said certain sectors of the economy have been particularly gutted by the COVID-19 outbreak.

“There are many businesses out there that are running at pre-pandemic levels or even better,” he said, “but there are still those sectors — the entertainment industry, the leisure and hospitality industry — those sectors are still very hard-hit.”

In December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported employment in the leisure and hospitality sector dropped by 498,000 nationwide. Three quarters of that decrease came from job losses among food service and drinking establishments.

The outlook for those sectors has, however, improved since December. In March, the leisure and hospitality sector gained 280,000 jobs, which was on top of gains made in February. This, the bureau said, occurred as pandemic-related restrictions started to ease across the country.

Almost two-thirds of that March spike was at food service and drinking places, accounting for 176,000 jobs. The arts, entertainment and recreation sectors, meanwhile, saw an increase of 64,000 jobs.

Another possible reason for the persistent number of new unemployment claims? Federal rules require people who have been on unemployment to refile for benefits after a year has passed, which Cannon said could also help explain the uptick in new claims. Currently, the benefit year is ending for people who filed for unemployment the week of April 4, 2020.

“It’s a combination of folks who are still unemployed or still losing their jobs because of the pandemic and the impact of the economic downtown,” Cannon explained, “and because folks are refiling because their benefit year has ended.”