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This story was updated at 11:24 p.m. on Thursday, June 18, 2020, with more information.

Unemployment in Tennessee and Georgia declined last month from the record highs reached in April, but more than 300,000 Tennesseans and 678,00 Georgians continued to receive jobless benefits last week due to layoffs from the coronavirus pandemic.

The jobless rate in Tennessee fell during May to 11.3%, down 4.2 percentage points from the record high 15.5% unemployment level reached in April when much of the economy was shut down to limit the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

In Georgia, unemployment declined from the record high 12.6% in April to 9.7% last month even though Georgia has had the biggest jump in jobless claims of any state.

Both states reported unemployment last month below the U.S. rate of 13.3%.

"Although the unemployment rate remains at historically high levels, it is encouraging to see such a big drop in the jobless rate in May as the economy reopens and more people go back to work," said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. "The economy is certainly weaker that it was at the start of the year and many businesses will likely take this period to cut costs and unprofitable operations. But we are seeing signs of improvement."

Jobless in May

' 9.7% in Georgia, down from 12.6% in May.

' 11.3% in Tennessee, down from 15.5% in May.

' 13.3% for the U.S. as a whole, down from 14.7% in May.

Sources: Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development, Georgia Department of Labor

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday that employment across Tennessee grew by 96,700 jobs from April to May, although total employment in the state last month was still 467,000 from a year earlier. The average manufacturing workweek in Tennessee also grew from just 34 hours in April to 37.5 hours in May.

The number of employed Georgians grew by 144,877 during May, but employment last month in the Peach State was still down 480,592 compared to this time last year.

"I think we are going to continue to see big drops in the unemployment rate as Georgia continues to open back up," Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. "We have to remember that the recent unemployment was not caused by an economic catalyst, but instead by a medical emergency. Those jobs are still out there for the most part."

But three months after businesses began shutting down or limiting operations due to the coronavirus, initial claims for jobless benefits remain at elevated levels. More than 19,900 jobless Tennessee residents — including another 1,510 workers in the 10-county Southeast Tennessee district around Chattanooga — filed new claims for unemployment benefits during the week that ended Saturday.

That was the lowest weekly total in 11 weeks, but it brought the total number of new jobless claims filed since mid March to 622,644 in Tennessee and to nearly twice that level in Georgia.

Despite Georgia' below-average jobless rate in May, the Peach state has been the hardest hit of any state for the growth in its new unemployment claims amid the coronavirus.

According to data from the Department of Labor, the number of unemployment insurance initial claims in Georgia has increased by over 600% since the beginning of the year.

"This is one of the highest percentages in the country," said Jill Gonzalez, an analyst for WalletHub which ranked Georgia as the hardest hit state in the nation for new jobless claims this year." At the same time, the number of unemployment insurance initial claims registered last week in Georgia is almost 3000% higher than that registered during the same week last year."

The economic pain from the double-digit unemployment level in Tennessee and most of America has been eased, to some extent, by the most generous unemployment benefits and stimulus package ever adopted by Congress. In Tennessee, for instance, unemployed persons are getting an extra $600 of federal benefits added on to their state jobless benefit maximum of only $275 a week.

Last week, Tennessee paid $290.1 million in jobless benefits to 300,324 claimants. To help maintain its unemployment insurance trust fund above $1 billion to avoid an increase in employer taxes, Tennessee is using federal funds distributed under the federal CARES Act to pay all jobless benefits with federal funds.

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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