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Virus to spike state jobless rates

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Statistics released this week reveal unemployment in Wilson County was on the decline prior to the global coronavirus pandemic that left 6.6 million people across the country without a job last week alone.

“February will mark the end of an incomplete recovery from the Great Recession, and we need to be preparing now for a downturn at least as bad as that this time around,” Patrick McHugh, Budget & Tax Center senior economic analyst, said in a press release. “We’re experiencing the fastest loss of jobs in American history and will hit half a million North Carolinians filing for unemployment as a result of this crisis in the next few days.”

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, about 16.8 million American workers have filed for jobless benefits in the past three weeks. North Carolina’s data reveals 474,000 have filed for unemployment between March 16 and April 7, but a breakdown of the impact in individual counties has not been released.

PANDEMIC’S LOCAL IMPACT

Wilson Economic Development Council Executive Director Jennifer Lantz reached out to all the local industries when Gov. Roy Cooper issued the initial stay-at-home order. She noted that only a couple were considered non-essential, which means the bulk of Wilson’s industries are continuing to employ thousands.

“It is small businesses — especially retail, restaurants and hospitality — that will feel the hardest hit initially in Wilson,” she said. “Depending on how long it lasts, other sectors will increase potentially, but we’ll have to see how long the governor’s order is in effect.”

Bridgestone shuttered plants across multiple continents on March 21 with an initial plan to reopen by April 6. In a Wednesday release, the company said it planned to reopen commercial tire facilities on April 13, but facilities like the consumer tire production plant in Wilson will remain closed until the first week of May. The local facility employs 1,800 Bridgestone workers as well as 300 contractors.

“We are utilizing a variety of means to ensure our employees’ needs are met during this unprecedented time, including but not limited to supplemental unemployment benefits, state and federal unemployment benefits and direct compensation when ineligible for other benefits,” company spokeswoman Emily Weaver said in a prepared statement.

While unemployment assistance is available to many who have been let go in the wake of efforts to limit the virus’ spread, it’s unclear how many North Carolinians have been unsuccessful at applying for benefits due to overwhelming demand on the state system. Unlike during the Great Recession when it took two years for 8.6 million Americans to lose their jobs, the COVID-19 layoffs have been sudden and widespread.

“I think this recession is going to take a bit to get over, but I don’t think it will be like the Great Recession in that we were in a recession for years,” Lantz said. “Once the pandemic has eased and social distancing restrictions have lifted, a lot of businesses will go back to normal.”

A DECADE OF DIFFERENCE

“Before this crisis, there were no structural economic weaknesses like there was in 2008,” said Wilson Chamber of Commerce President Ryan Simons. “Because of that, I’d like to believe the recovery would be rather quick. However, every day that passes without the exchange of commerce equates to more recovery that will be necessary.”

According to Wilson Times archives, the local unemployment rate peaked around 13.6% in July 2011, more than double the pre-recession rate of 5.7% in October 2007. The rate remained in the double digits for four years, hovering above the state average until staying below 10% in September 2015.

The N.C. Department of Commerce released February’s rates on Wednesday, which reflected a 0.5% decrease from January with a rate of 5.3% in Wilson County.

“Our efforts at combating unemployment were reaching their stride,” Simons said of the pre-pandemic rate.

“We will always have work to do, with a responsibility to help everyone who wants a job to get a job,” he said. “A fluctuation of 1-2 percentage points, month-over-month, has very little bearing on our resolve to achieve this goal.”

Simons said many organizations were helping Wilsonians find jobs and the work was paying off. While Wilson County has recently remained in the top five highest unemployment rates among the state’s 100 counties, 10 other counties had higher rates in February.

“It is going to be a steep one in that we were on a cliff and we fell off, but we have to see how the trajectory is after that,” Lantz said. “It could be a steep fall and a steep road back up, or it could be a more gradual recovery, but I don’t think it will be like the Great Recession that lasted so long.”

Officials said double-digit unemployment rates are likely on the federal, state and local level, as is some level of a recession. The increase in unemployment will be quantified once statistics from March are released in late April, but Lantz is working in the meantime to look at the bigger picture, including studying supply chain disruptions in other countries.

“I feel like it is my job to look at all the data I can get from across the globe,” she said. “When we come out of the pandemic, I want to reposition ourselves to make sure Wilson stays healthy and strong going forward from an economic standpoint.”

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