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Photo by Dave Flessner / Food City continues to recruit workers to help staff its 128 supermarkets in Tennessee, Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky and Virginia.

Unemployment in the Chattanooga area fell last month to its lowest level since before the coronavirus began shutting down businesses more than 14 months ago as local employers restored more than 88% of the jobs lost last year due to the pandemic.

The jobless rate in the 6-county Chattanooga metropolitan area dropped by another half a percentage point during April to 3.8% — the lowest level since February 2020 and nearly 40% below the comparable U.S. non-seasonally adjusted jobless rate of 6.2% last month.

There were still nearly 3,700 fewer Chattanoogans employed than two years ago in April, but there are now nearly two job openings for every person counted as unemployed across Tennessee, according to figures compiled by the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development. Last week, the number of new claims filed by unemployed persons in Tennessee also fell to the lowest number since early March 2020.

Nicole Moorshead, a marketing and operations services manager for the local Hardee's franchisee, J&S Restaurants, said some of its eateries are having to limit hours or cut out indoor seating because the fast-food chain simply can't get enough workers. The company is hiring at all 42 of its area Hardee's restaurants to help collectively fill 560 vacant jobs, Moorshead said.

"This is an unprecedented situation and time for us, and I know we're not the only business in this position now," she said. "Like everybody else, we're doing all we can to get more help at our restaurants."

On Thursday, Tennessee career centers had 257,056 job openings across the Volunteer State and Georgia's labor department listed another 234,425 available jobs.

Food City conducted job fairs last week to try to fill more than 1,000 job openings at its distribution center and grocery stores across its 4-state footprint and the retailer continues to hire at most of its supermarkets.

To aid businesses recruit workers and recover from the pandemic, the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce launched a web site and telephone service known as Chattanooga Calling to help link employers who are hiring with individuals looking for work, including reaching out to those who might want to relocate to Chattanooga. Already, the site has generated 21,000 job searches from over 9,000 unique users, Chamber spokeswoman Amanda Ellis said.

Jobless in April

Unemployment fell in 16 area counties and was unchanged in three others during April. But all of the area counties in the Chattanooga region had jobless rates last month below the U.S. rate of 6.2%.

* Dade, Georgia, 2.3%, down 0.1% from March

* Catoosa, Georgia, 2.4%, unchanged from March

* Walker, Georgia, 2.8%, down 0.1% from March

* Frankin, 3.9%, down 08% from March

* Whitfield, Georgia, 3.9%, unchanged from March

* Bradley, 4.1%, down 1% from March

* Coffee, 4%, down 0.9% from March

* Murray, Georgia, 4.1%, down 0.1% from March

* Polk, 4.2%, down 1.1% from March

* Hamilton, 4.3%, down 0.5% from March

* Marion, 4.3% down 1.2% from March

* Sequatchie, 4.5%, down 1% from March

* McMinn, 4.7%, down 0,7% from March

* Chatoosa, Georgia, 4.7%, unchanged from March

* Bledsoe, 4.9%, down 1.3% from March

* Rhea, 5.1%, down 1.4% from March

* Meigs, 5.3%, down 0.9% from March

* Van Buren, 5.4%, down 1.4% from March

* Grundy, 5.5%, down 1% from March

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

In the Chattanooga region, the labor market appears tightest in Northwest Georgia where most of the area counties reported unemployment rates below 4% last month. The jobless rate fell in Dade County to a mere 2.3% — the third lowest among the 159 counties in Georgia.

"We had another strong month in April," Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler said. "We saw the unemployment rate decrease in almost every metro area, along with an over-the-month and over-the-year decrease in initial claims for every area."

Although unemployment rates tended to be slightly higher north of the border, none of the 10 highest counties for unemployment last month in Tennessee were in Southeast Tennessee and jobless rates fell in most counties in April from March levels.

"We're seeing solid signs of economic growth across our state and the state's economic output is expected to be back to pre-pandemic levels this quarter, although employment still below the peak levels we saw before coronavirus," said Bill Fox, director of the Boyd Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Tennessee.

Mark Hamrick, chief economic analyst for Bankrate.com, said initial jobless claims nationwide have dropped for four consecutive months, "pointing to further healing of the job market." But Hamrick said employment remains challenged in some key parts of the economy.

"The leisure and hospitality sector, which includes bars and restaurants, is still looking at a deficit of 2.8 million jobs compared to pre-pandemic levels," he said. "Some of those workers have found jobs elsewhere, others have moved on, but some will still be eager to get their jobs back as they become available, or when those individuals are ready and able to work."

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

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