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Unemployment in the Chattanooga area dropped last month to the lowest level in six months as employers added back 24,000 jobs since the coronavirus shut down much of the local economy this spring.

The jobless rate in metro Chattanooga fell from 6.8% in August to 5.1% last month as schools, restaurants and other businesses reopened or expanded operations. Chattanooga's unemployment rate was well below both the comparable 6.2% statewide unemployment rate and the 7.7% U.S. unemployment rate during September.

"The job market is improving in Tennessee and we are doing better than many parts of the country," said Dr. Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. "But it will still take some time to recover all of the jobs we have lost during this pandemic."

Last month, the number of employed persons in the 6-county Chattanooga metro area was still 7,012 below a year ago even after the record job gains since April.

Unemployment in the Chattanooga area spiked to a record high of 13.3% in April after falling to post-World War II lows last fall and early this year.

On Thursday, Tennessee Career Centers listed 219,685 job openings and Georgia employers posted 167,965 open jobs with the Georgia Department of Labor, more than double the level of job postings in April. Major local employers such as GE Roper, Pilgrim's Pride, Volkswagen and Amazon, among others, are collectively hiring several hundred more workers in the Chattanooga area as both replacements and to meet new business growth.

Cameron Bruett, head of corporate affairs for Pilgrim's Pride, said the chicken processing and packaging plants in Chattanooga are continually looking to hire drivers, production workers and supervisors.

"Pilgrim's Chattanooga is looking to hire 25 new team members per week, on average," Bruett said. "Wage rates vary by position, but start at $13.78 to $14.78 per hour. We are excited to continue to provide job opportunities in Chattanooga and build on our great team at Pilgrim's."

Local unemployment rates

The unemployment rates in most area counties declined in September from the previous month and were below the comparable U.S. average of 7.7% in all counties in the Chattanooga region.

* Dade, 3.2%, unchanged from August

* Catoosa, 3.6%, unchanged from August

* Walker, 4.0%, unchanged from August

* Franklin, 4.8%, down from 6.6% in August

* Polk, 4.9%, down 6.6% in August

* Whitfield, 5.0%, down from 5.4% in August

* Bradley, 5.2%, down from 7.2% in August

* Coffee, 5.3%, down from 7.2% in August

* Marion, 5.5%, down from 7.9% in August

* Hamilton, 5.6%, down from 7.8% in August

* Sequatchie, 5.6%, down from 7.9% in August

* Bledsoe, 5.7%, down from 7.9% in August

* McMinn, 5.7%, down from 7.7% in August

* Grundy, 6.3%, down from 9% in August

* Van Buren, 6.4%, down 7.6% in August

* Chattooga, 6.5%, up from 6.4% in August

* Rhea, 6.5%, down from 8.9% in August

* Meigs, 6.6%, down from 8.9% in August

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

But even as employment grows at some companies, other employers continue to shed jobs, including the announcement Thursday by the Tennessee Aquarium that it is cutting 22 full-time jobs due to reduced visitation during the ongoing pandemic.

Last week, another 9,873 Tennesseans lost their jobs and filed initial jobless claims, including another 482 laid-off workers in Hamilton County, according to the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Since March 15, a total of 891,598 Tennesseans — or about one of every five workers in the state — has filed a claim for unemployment benefits.

Across Georgia, more than 1.4 million Georgians have received benefits during the past seven months. But Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said "many are beginning to return to the workplace or are looking for new career opportunities."

Those still unemployed are getting only a fraction of the weekly benefits available for unemployed persons earlier this year.

With the $600 weekly supplement to the state jobless benefits provided by the federal government through July, the average unemployed Tennessean was getting more than $825 a week in jobless benefits prior to August. Last week, the average Tennessean still getting jobless benefits was paid $268.30 in benefits, even as the number of such beneficiaries continues to shrink.

Nationwide, the number of laid-off Americans seeking unemployment benefits fell last week to 787,000, a sign that job losses may have eased slightly but are still running at historically high levels. Last week's figure was down from 842,000 the previous week, the Labor Department said Thursday.

Economists welcomed the declines as evidence that the job market is still recovering from the pandemic recession. But some cautioned that the improvement could prove short-lived. With confirmed infections having neared 60,000 in the past week, the most since July, consumers have been unable or reluctant to shop, travel, dine out or congregate in crowds — a trend that has led some employers to keep cutting jobs. 

"We doubt it will continue as COVID infections spread rapidly, pushing down demand for discretionary consumer services, especially in the hospitality sector," said Ian Shepherdson, chief economist at Pantheon Macroeconomics.

Bankrate.com's senior economic analyst Mark Hamrick said a total of more than 23 million Americans are receiving some form of assistance last week with the addit9on of the Pandemic Emergency Employment Compensation program.

"It is difficult to know exactly how many individuals are no longer qualifying for jobless aid, and how many are going back to work when looking at these numbers alone," Hamrick said.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. Contact Dave Flessner at dflessner@timesfreepress.com or at 757-6340

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