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Employers added 15,400 more jobs to Tennessee's payrolls last month, boosting employment to the highest level in the Volunteer State since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic a year ago.

Despite the increase in job creation during March, Tennessee's unemployment rate still edged up a tenth of a percentage point last month to 5% and initial claims for jobless benefits rose last week to the highest level in seven weeks.

"The economy is certainly improving and we expect to see continued job gains this year," said Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. "But the pandemic has undoubtedly changed the job market and it's going to be a while before we regain all of the jobs we lost in the past year."

Tennessee still had 84,300 fewer jobs last month than a year earlier, including 43,100 fewer jobs in the leisure and hospitality industries.

The labor force participation rate also dropped from 61% of all adults a year ago to 60.2% last month as more people quit looking for jobs to stay home with children being educated at home or to care for others sickened or sidelined by the pandemic. Some workers also may still be reluctant to return to some jobs where they fear they might be exposed to the COVID-19 virus or reluctant to take another job after losing their previous position during last year's economic slowdown.

Fox said the extra $300 a week in federal supplemental unemployment benefits in addition to Tennessee's maximum $275-a-week jobless payments may also be discouraging some workers from returning to lower paying jobs. Full-time workers making less than $15 an hour may do just as well getting unemployment insurance benefits while they last as they would going back to work.

Jobless in March

* 4.5 % in Georgia, down from 4.8% in February

* 5.0% in Tennessee, up from 4.9% in February

* 6.0% in the U.S. as a whole, down from 6.2% in February

Sources: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development and the Georgia Department of Labor

Last week, 10,8690 Tennesseans filed initial claims for unemployment benefits, including 682 in Hamilton County and 223 in Bradley County. The first-time jobless benefit applicants were up from the previous week and boosted the total number of Tennesseans receiving unemployment insurance payments last week to 55,982 persons.

Nationwide, however, initial jobless claims plummeted by 193,000 from a revised 769,000 a week earlier. Jobless claims are now down sharply from a peak of 900,000 in early January and well below the 700,000-plus level they had been stuck at for months.

"With a huge, better-than-expected decline in new claims for unemployment assistance, at long last the economic recovery appears to be picking up speed," said Mark Hamrick, senior economic analyst for Bankrate.com.

The Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development reported Thursday that 167,333 Tennesseans were unemployed last month. That was nearly 24% less than the 220,000 open positions employers were advertising Thursday on the state's career web site at Jobs4TN.gov.

Many of the open jobs may not be where people live or may have job skill requirements different from those who are unemployed, but Fox said the labor market is tightening in many parts of Tennessee.

To the south in Georgia, the job market was even stronger in March. The jobless rate in Georgia last month dropped by three tenths of a percentage point to 4.5% with the addition of 21,800 jobs across the Peach State during the month.

"EmployGeorgia (the state's web site for job listings) is showing triple the amount of job listings that we were seeing at the start of the pandemic," Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. "Georgia has gained a vast majority of the jobs that were lost since March of last year, and we continue to remain strong in economic growth and business development."

Both Tennessee and Georgia maintained jobless rates in March below the U.S. seasonally adjusted rate of 6% last month.

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

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