Tennessee jobless claims triple, recession fears grow due to COVID-19 outbreak

FILE - This April 22, 2014, file photo shows an employment application form on a table during a job fair at Columbia-Greene Community College in Hudson, N.Y. The Labor Department said Thursday, Feb. 23, 2017, that 244,000 Americans applied for jobless aid last week, up by 6,000 from the previous week.(AP Photo/Mike Groll, File)

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Claims for new jobless benefits by workers who just lost their jobs in Tennessee nearly tripled in the second week of March compared with the start of the month, according to state figures released Tuesday.

Chris Cannon, assistant administrator for communications at the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, said Tuesday "it is not possible to determine an exact number filed due to the COVID-19 emergency." But economists fear that business cutbacks and closings due to the growing virus pandemic are likely to lead to more layoffs as schools, stores, restaurants, bars, movie theaters and other businesses scale back or suspend operations altogether to limit chances of spreading the virus.

Since March 8, the state has received 6,092 new unemployment claims. In comparison, from March 1 through March 7, the division processed 2,031 new claims, Cannon said.

Applications for unemployment benefits are an early sign of any change in the employment market and could signal whether the virus has started to trigger major layoffs. Ahead of last week, jobless claims were down and remained at relatively low levels with the U.S. jobless rate still at a 50-year low.

But some economists are already warning that the economic impact of the virus could be severe enough to push the global economy into a recession.

Dr. William Fox, director of the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee, said last week he expects Tennessee's economy to contract and may ultimately meet the technical definition of a recession with two consecutive fiscal quarters of negative growth.

"Certainly, the travel industry is being hurt and the entire economy is feeling the impact of the virus as the drop in the stock market shows," Fox said.

Despite a rebound in stocks Tuesday, the Dow Jones Industrial is still down by nearly 30% from its all-time peak reached last month.

Most of Chattanooga's major attractions, including the Tennessee Aquarium, Ruby Falls and Rock City, have closed indefinitely and movie theaters and restaurants are also shutting down or limiting their operations to only take out.

But Chattanooga's job market remains relatively robust and local employers are still hiring, even amid the virus scare.

Volkswagen of America, the region's largest manufacturing employer, will begin next Monday hiring to fill another 600 jobs it is adding at its Chattanooga assembly plant. Amazon, which already has more than 3,000 local workers at its warehouses in Chattanooga and Charleston and its Whole Foods store on the North Shore, announced Monday it wants to add another 100,000 workers across the country and it is temporarily boosting hourly pay for most workers by $2 an hour.

At the same time, the U.S. Bureau of Census is hiring enumerators and other workers to help conduct the decennial count of all Americans. As of Feb. 24, the census bureau had hired nearly 2,400 workers in Hamilton County, which was less than two-thirds of its goal for the 2020 count.