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Photo by Dave Flessner / Panda's Xpress in Hixson is among dozens of area restaurants hiring workers.

This story was updated Friday, Dec. 25, 2020, at 12 p.m. with more information.

Unemployment in the Chattanooga area fell last month to 4.3% — its lowest level in eight months and more than 2 percentage points below the national unemployment rate in November.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development delivered the good news just ahead of Christmas in a year that has had more than its share of bad economic news. Although still above the 3.3% jobless rate reached in Chattanooga before the pandemic began shutting down or limiting many businesses, November's jobless rate was less than a third of Chattanooga's 13.2% peak in unemployment reached in April at the worst of the economic slowdown.

In the past eight months, household surveys by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics show that Chattanooga area employers have added back an estimated 36,709 jobs, although a separate business survey across the state showed a slower rate of job growth.

"What the employment data show is a continued recovery, although more modest than the really big gains in employment that we saw this summer," said Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. "We still have areas of the economy like leisure and hospitality where the recovery is slow because demand is very weak and the concerns about the pandemic continue to limit business."

The economic slowdown hit nearly all areas of the economy with the only sector showing year-over-year gains in employment as of this fall in Tennessee was the financial sector. Historically low mortgage rates have triggered more refinancing and home purchases to boost the real estate and mortgage lending business. The Paycheck Protection Program loans offered by banks through the Small Business Administration pumped more than $8 billion into thousands of Tennessee businesses, also boosting loans and deposits at banks, credit unions and other financial institutions.

But all other major employment sectors have yet to return to their pre-pandemic levels with nearly half of the jobs in the entertainment, travel, airline and hotel industries lost so far this year.

Last month's decline in Chattanooga's jobless rate followed a slight uptick in the local jobless rate during October and economists cautioned that the worsening pandemic and the end of holiday spending could push more people out of work as the new year begins. Indeed, in a separate report released Thursday, the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development said initial claims last week for unemployment from those just losing their jobs remained at an elevated level and higher than the average number of such initial claims filed in a typical week last month in Tennessee.

Last week, 7,411 Tennessean filed first-time claims for unemployment, including 527 in Hamilton County and 228 in Bradley County. Since mid-March, a record 954,189 Tennessee workers, or more than one of every four workers in Tennessee, have filed a claim for jobless benefits.

Jobless in November

Household surveys by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed the non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate in November fell in most counties in the Chattanooga region last month. The unemployment rate in all area counties was below the comparable U.S. rate of 6.6% or Tennessee’s statewide 7.2% rate.

* Catoosa in Georgia, 2.9%, up from 2.3% the previous month

* Dade in Georgia, 3.0%, up from 2.3% the previous month

* Walker in Georgia, 3.4%, up from 2.8% the previous month

* Franklin, 4.4%, down from 6.1% the previous month

* Coffee, 4.6%, down from 6.5% the previous month

* Hamilton, 4.7%, down from 6.7% the previous month

* Bradley, 4.7%, down from 6.6% the previous month

* Polk, 4.9% down from 7% the previous month

* McMinn, 5.0% down from 6.9% the previous month

* Marion, 5.1%, down from 7.3% the previous month

* Whitfield, 5.1%, up from 4.1% the previous month

* Sequatchie, 5.3%, down from 7.6% the previous month

* Chattanooga in Georgia, 5.3%, up from 4.5% the previous month

* Murray in Georgia, 5.5%, up from 4.4% the previous month

* Meigs, 5.6%, down from 8.3% the previous month

* Van Buren, 5.8%, from 7.8% the previous month

* Rhea, 6.1%, down 8.4% the previous month

* Bledsoe, 6.2%, down 8.7% the previous month

* Grundy, 6.3%, down from 8.4% the previous month

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

Continuing claims are shrinking, however, as more of those who were laid off earlier this year return to work while others have exhausted their six months of benefits and are no longer able to receive Unemployment Insurance benefits. As of Saturday, more unemployed persons will lose their jobless benefits unless an emergency coronavirus relief measure is signed in time by President Trump.

Fox said supplemental benefits paid to jobless persons earlier this year, combined with business loans and Federal Reserve Board actions to ease short-term economic hardships, have limited the economic fallout from the worst and most rapid downturn of the economy in U.S. history this spring. Restoring all of the jobs lost due to the COVID-induced recession may take several years, Fox said.

The state offers online options for Tennesseans searching for employment on the state's workforce development website, Jobs4TN.gov. Job seekers can currently find more than 230,000 open positions in a wide range of occupations and skill levels.

In Chattanooga, a new website that connects local job-seekers to work and training opportunities, Chattanooga Calling.com, currently lists 2,920 jobs. The Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce recently established the website to help sell the story of the Scenic City to folks considering a move.

"Area employers tell us they are hiring, and they're asking for help to locate great job candidates," Christy Gillenwater, president and CEO of the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce said when the program was launched earlier this month. "Jobless numbers tell the story of the fallout from the pandemic and we know people need jobs right now."

In November, each of Tennessee's 95 counties experienced decreased unemployment with the lowest jobless rate in the Nashville suburban county of Williamson County, where unemployment fell to 3.3%. Lake County in East Tennessee recorded the highest jobless rate of any Tennessee county in November at 8.1%. But that was still down 2 percentage points from Lake County's double-digit unemployment rate in October.

In metropolitan Cleveland, which includes Bradley and Polk counties, the jobless rate dropped from 6.7% in October to 4.7% last month. To the south in metropolitan Dalton, the number of employed persons rose last month but the jobless rate increased from 4.2% in October to 5.2% last month due to an even bigger increase in the number of persons looking for jobs.

"In November, almost all MSAs (in Georgia) saw over-the-month growth in key indicators," said Labor Commissioner Mark Butler. "Although the unemployment rate increased across the state, we have held consistently steady numbers in areas such as job growth and employment."

Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 423-757-6340.

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Photo by Dave Flessner / National Tire and Battery in Hixson is among local employers hiring amid the pandemic.
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