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Tennessee weekly jobless claims 14 times higher amid virus

by Jonathan Mattise and Adrian Sainz — 

NASHVILLE — Tennessee saw more than 14 times as many new unemployment claims filed last week compared to the previous one, quantifying some of the economic consequences of a global coronavirus pandemic that has shuttered businesses to curb further infection.

According to U.S. Department of Labor figures released Thursday, Tennessee had 39,096 new claims during the week that ended Saturday. There were 2,702 during the week ending March 14.

Nationally, nearly 3.3 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week — almost five times the previous record set in 1982.

The most recent Tennessee claims total show a period before Gov. Bill Lee generally banned gatherings of more than 10 people; limited restaurants and bars statewide to takeout, delivery and drive-thru; and closed gyms, all of which Lee ordered Sunday and made effective Monday.

Some cities and counties had similar restrictions in place locally before Lee made them statewide, however. And some of them have ordered up tighter restrictions to shutter nonessential businesses. Nashville’s so-called stay-at-home order, for instance, was signed and kicked-in the same days as Lee’s statewide restrictions.

Notices of layoffs have also begun rolling in.

Among the temporary layoffs were 756 workers in seven counties with the hotel company Vision Hospitality Group; 88 people at the Holiday Inn in Knoxville; 75 workers with the Old Town Trolley Tours in Nashville; 61 workers at Corky’s Ribs & BBQ in Shelby County, including Memphis; and 70 people with the hotel company Summit Management Corp. at locations in Shelby County.

The Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga is laying off 112 people and described the layoffs as permanent.

Lee, meanwhile, announced a partnership with the Tennessee Grocers and Convenience Store Association, Tennessee Retail Association and Hospitality TN to help unemployed people fill jobs that are in demand during the crisis.

The maximum weekly unemployment benefit in Tennessee is $275 before the deduction of federal taxes.

State labor officials called the unemployment claim surge unprecedented. It’s a drastic change for Tennessee’s economy, where officials reported that the statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate for February was 3.4%, below the national rate of 3.5%. Now state labor officials are shifting resources to triple the number of staff trained to process claim applications.

Business owners like Takeisha Berry Brooks, who owns a hair salon in Memphis, have been left scrambling because of the pandemic.

She closed her salon, A Natural Affair, on Tuesday afternoon after Memphis Mayor Jim Strickland ordered all nonessential businesses to shutter for two weeks. The independent contractors who do nails and style hair at her salon are also out of work.

“With this situation, it’s definitely going to be a loss of income for everybody involved, including me,” she said.

Brooks said she feels bad for her workers, some of whom may need to file unemployment claims.

“It hurts me because I don’t know what they’re going to go through,” she said. “I feel powerless.”

Some companies, like her salon scheduling service, have deferred monthly payments. The local electric company has paused utility shut-offs for Memphis customers.

“Now that we’re legally shut down, now the opportunity could possibly be there for us to get a break on some of these things that are due,” she said.

She feels fortunate that her husband’s job driving a truck delivering fuel to local gas stations is considered an essential job and he can still work and get paid. He also delivers food for Uber Eats.

The mother of three does not plan to apply for unemployment at this time. She does expect to reopen once the mayor’s order is lifted.

But finances will get tighter if it goes past two weeks.

“If it goes past a certain time frame, I will definitely feel the crunch,” she said. “There are just certain things that I know are not essential that will not be paid.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death.

(Andrew Sainz reported from Memphis.)

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