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Photo by Dave Flessner / The Burger King on Battlefield Parkway in Fort Oglethorpe is among dozens of area restaurants seeking to hire more workers. Unemployment in Catoosa and Walker counties fell last month to a mere 2.4% — one of the lowest unemployment rates in the South.

Unemployment in the counties of Northwest Georgia fell last month to some of the lowest rates in the MidSouth as the economy opened up in the suburbs south of Chattanooga but some workers remain reluctant to go back to work amid the pandemic.

The jobless rate in Catoosa and Walker counties in Georgia dropped to a mere 2.4% in March, falling below their pre-pandemic lows as the labor force remained below year-ago levels. Despite higher jobless rates last month in rural counties surrounding Chattanooga in Southeast Tennessee, unemployment fell to below 3% in most of the counties south of Chattanooga in Georgia and Alabama.

Only a half dozen counties among the 221 counties in Georgia, Tennessee and Alabama had a lower jobless rate last month than Catoosa and Walker.

"It's a struggle for all of us in the hospitality industry to hire workers right now," said Hugh Morrow, president of Ruby Falls on Lookout Mountain in Walker County. "I understand there are some people still reluctant to go back to work, but hopefully we'll soon see more job applicants as more people are vaccinated and we get back to normal."

More workers are critical for the Lookout Mountain attraction, which is hoping to resume more normal visitation volumes by Memorial Day weekend but only if it can hire enough workers to staff all of its operations.

Restaurants and small businesses across the Chattanooga region say they are having more difficulty filling jobs this spring even as the total number of people with jobs is still down from a year ago.

In the 6-county Chattanooga metropolitan area, employment last month remained 3,261 jobs below the year-ago level and the unemployment rate of 4.3% was higher than the 3.9% jobless rate in March 2020.

Unemployment in the Chattanooga area still remained below the comparable 5.1% non-seasonally adjusted rate for Tennessee or the comparable 6.2% unemployment rate for the U.S. as a whole in March.

Jeff Humphreys, director of the Selig Center at the University of Georgia, said Northwest Georgia is benefiting more than most areas by the upturn in housing and the demand for home building products. The housing rebound is boosting business and staffing needs for the floorcovering industry in Dalton, which bills itself as the Carpet capital of the world, and the appliance industry, where GE Roper is expanding operations and adding 150 more workers in Lafayette, Georgia.

"The home building industry has had a very strong recovery with no end in sight and it has outpaced almost every other industry," Humphreys said. "That has created a lot of demand and business for the floorcovering industry that is centered in Northwest Georgia."

Employment has nearly returned to the levels of a year ago after plunging more than 10% last spring when the pandemic forced shutdowns of many stores, restaurants, schools and even some factories. Workers dislocated by the shutdowns have been able to receive more generous jobless benefits than normal along with extra stimulus payments for individuals and forgivable Paycheck Protection Program loans for businesses.

"A lot of people dropped out of the labor market during the pandemic and many of them have yet to return," Humphreys said. "Many people may not start looking for work again until more people are vaccinated for the virus and others may be reluctant to go back as long as they can continue to receive extra unemployment benefits."

The extra $300 a week of federal payments on top of state unemployment insurance benefits will end in September or once a person has been unemployed for 26 weeks or is called back to his or her old job.

"I think we will see some pretty healthy labor force gains later this year as people have less anxiety about the virus and as a lot of the federal support programs wind down," Humphreys said.

But the UGA economist doesn't expect employment to return to the peaks reached prior to the pandemic until 2022 across Georgia and not until 2023 in the rest of the country.

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

Jobless in March

Unemployment in the Chattanooga region was lower in the counties in Northwest Georgia and Northeast Alabama counties than in any of the counties in Southeast Tennessee.

* Catoosa in Georgia, 2.4%, down 0.2% from February

* Dade in Georgia, 2.4%, down 0.2% from February

* DeKalb in Alabama, 2.6%, up 0.1% from February

* Walker in Georgia, 2.9%, down 0.3% from February

* Jackson in Alabama, 3.1%, up 0.1% from February

* Whitfield in Georgia, 3.9%, down 0.4% from February

* Franklin, 4.6%, up 0.2% from February

* Chattooga in Georgia, 4.7%, down 0.6% from February

* Hamilton, 4.8%, up 0.3% from February

* Coffee, 4.9%, up 0.3% from February

* Bradley, 5.1%, up 0.5% from February

* Polk, 5.2%, up 0.2% from February

* McMinn, 5.3%, up 0.4% from February

* Marion, 5.5%, up 0.4% from February

* Sequatchie, 5.6%, up 0.2% from February

* Meigs, 6.2%, up 0.1% from February

* Grundy, 6.6%, up 0.2% from February

* Rhea, 6.6%, up 0.3% from February

* Van Buren, 6.9%, up 1.1% from February

* Bledsoe, 7.4%, up 0.5% from February

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

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