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Photo by Dave Flessner / Despite a rise in unemployment in Chattanooga last month, many employers, including this Hixson hotel, are looking to hire more workers.

Chattanooga's jobless rate rose last month but remained below both the state and national averages, according to preliminary job figures released Thursday.

Employers in the 6-county area ended 2020 with a slight gain of 1,701 jobs for the entire year after restoring most of the nearly 35,000 jobs temporarily lost in the Chattanooga area last April.

Unemployment in metropolitan Chattanooga rose by 1.2 percentage points in December to 5.4%, well above the 3.3% jobless rate at the end of 2019. But in spite of the economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic last year, overall employment still grew in 2020 and Chattanooga's jobless rate last month was well below the U.S. rate of 6.7%.

The jobless rate last month also rose to 5.4% in metro Dalton, Georgia, and to 6.1% in metro Cleveland, Tennessee. But most of the major counties in the region maintained unemployment rates lower than the U.S. average.

However, three rural counties in Southeast Tennessee — Bledsoe, Rhea and Van Buren — reported jobless rates above 8% in December, which were among the highest among the 95 counties in Tennessee.

The state estimates that 15,306 persons were unemployed and looking for work in the Chattanooga metro area during December. To help match those jobless persons with employers who are hiring the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce last month established Chattanooga Callling.com, which on Thursday identified 4,221 open positions.

Jobless in December

Unemployment rose in all counties in the Chattanooga region last month but was below the U.S. average of 6.7% in December in 12 of the 19 counties in the area.

* Catoosa, Georgia, 3.2%, up from 2.9% in November

* Dade, Georgia, 3.5%, up from 2.9% in November

* Walker, Georgia, 3.9%, up from 3.4% in November

* Whitfield, Georgia, 5.3%, up from 5.1% in November

* Hamilton, 5.9%, up from 4.6% in November

* Murray, Georgia, 5.9%, up from 5.5% in November

* Coffee, 5.9%, up from 4.6 % in November

* Bradley, 6%, up from 4.6% in November

* Chattooga, Georgia, 6.4%, up from 5.3% in November

* Sequatchie, 6.5%, up from 5.1% in November

* Polk, 6.5%, up from 4.8% in November

* McMinn, 6.6%, up from 4.9% in November

* Marion, 6.8%, up from 5% in November

* Meigs, 7.2%, up from 5.6% in November

* Grundy, 8%, up from 6% in November

* Franklin, 5.4%, up from 4.4% in November

* Rhea, 8.1%, up from 5.9% in November

* Van Buren, 8.1%, up from 5.6% in November

* Bledsoe, 8.8%, up from 6.2% in November

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

"There is still some disconnect between the jobs that are available and those who are unemployed due to the upheaval caused by the pandemic and probably some of the jobs that were lost during this pandemic will never come back," said Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee. "But we expect Tennessee and the overall U.S. economy to show improvement in the job market through 2021."

Williamson County recorded December's lowest unemployment rate among Tennessee's counties at 4.2% but that was still double its rate of a year earlier. Lake County had the state's highest unemployment rate for the month at 10.6%.

Separately on Thursday, the Labor Department reported that the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits fell but remained at a historically high 847,000 last week, a sign that layoffs keep coming as the coronavirus pandemic continues to rage. Before the virus hit the United States hard last March, weekly applications for jobless aid had never topped 700,000.

In Tennessee last week, 12,050 newly laid-off workers in Tennessee, including 541 in Hamilton County and 217 in Bradley County filed for unemployment benefits. That was down by 6,187 from the previous week's initial filings across the state.

But the number remained twice as high as such filings during October and November of last year and suggest that unemployment is likely to remain near current levels — or could go higher — in the early months of 2021 before declining again later in the year.

The Ultimate Kronos Group, a company that provides time-tracking software to small businesses, said the number of shifts worked by its clients dropped 2.5% in the second to last week of January from a month earlier. The drop was the biggest — 4.3% — in the Southeast.

"As we near the end of January, it's clear that the national labor recovery is still struggling to return from the slow holiday season," said David Gilbertson, vice president at UKG.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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

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