Job growth solid but Atlanta job market still tough

Hospitality remains a beleaguered part of the job market. Restaurants have adapted to the pandemic, but often with less dining-in and fewer workers on staff. Here, Chandra Johnson fills a to-go order at Reggae Vybz, a family-owned, Caribbean restaurant in Henry County. (Jenni Girtman for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution)

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Credit: Jenni Girtman

Metro Atlanta added jobs 24,200 jobs in August, helping to nurse along the region’s economic recovery from the coronavirus. But there’s still a long way to go in the return to anything close to pre-pandemic times.

Roughly 140,000 fewer jobs exist today than in February, said Michael Wald, former senior economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. The metro area has gained 178,300 jobs since April.

“The recovery is happening. It’s happening very slowly," Wald said.

The region’s unemployment rate did fall from 8.6% in July to 6.3% in August — generally a good sign. But the decline this time was largely because so many people have stopped looking for work and were not included in the calculation, Wald said.

The labor force shrank by 87,748 during the month.

The ratio of workers to the overall population of Georgia is the lowest it has been since the government started tracking that data in 1976, said Wald. “The unemployment rate is dropping because people gave up,” he said.

Not all quit looking out of frustration, said Richard Wahlquist, chief executive of the American Staffing Association, which represents a majority of staffing companies in the U.S..

Through July, a $600-a-week federal unemployment subsidy was incentive for some low-wage workers to stay at home, he said. Even after that expired, the fear of COVID continued to hang over worker choices.

And some parents can’t look for work because their children aren’t in school and are instead distance learning, Wahlquist said. "In the spring and summer, companies found that higher pay drew people. Now they are finding that is not enough.”

That means that, at least for some jobless Georgians, there is opportunity if they switch careers, said Jon Neff, chief operating officer of Hire Dynamics, a Duluth-based staffing company.

Hiring is strong at e-commerce companies, as well as some manufacturers and logistics firms that have prospered during the pandemic, he said.

Layoffs continue. About 825,000 Americans filed for state unemployment benefits last week, according to the U.S. Labor Department.

In Georgia, new jobless claims rose to 49,421 after nine consecutive weeks of decline, the Department of Labor said Thursday. While last week’s total was below the levels of April, it was still far higher than the worst week of the Great Recession in 2009.

Metro Atlanta in August had more than 600,000 people receiving unemployment benefits. The state’s online job board, Employ Georgia, this week lists about 96,000 positions for the region.

Tech skills are in demand, according to Glassdoor. But overall listings are down more than 20% from a year ago.

The worst job losses were in hospitality. Restaurants, bars, hotels and event facilities shut down, and some never reopened. Those that did reopen found themselves bearing added costs and seeing limited revenues on the other.

With so many employees working for home and business travel minimal, restaurants see just a fraction of the customers they saw pre-pandemic, said Robby Kukler, a partner in the Fifth Group Restaurants, which owns South City Kitchen, Lure and a string of other restaurants.

Nearly five months after reopening, there’s improvement, but it’s incremental, he said. “We are seeing revenues slowly climb, maybe a couple of percent a week. We are still not at 50% of our previous sales.”

In February, the Fifth Group had about 900 employees. Now, it has about half that.

Before the pandemic, Nicole Linton worked for a company that ran restaurants and stores in airports, doing communications and public relations.

“There wasn’t a day I wasn’t busy, and everything was doing very well,” the Cobb County woman said. “There was so much travel — business, leisure, international travel. Then, one day in March, I went home and as told not to come back.”

A few weeks later, she was furloughed. In July, she was told it was permanent. She’s received unemployment benefits, and her husband is still working. But their income still falls short of expenses.

Fortunately, their bank agreed to allow late mortgage payments, she said. “It’s not desperate, but it’s tough.”

She looks every day for work. To save money, she’s canceled some of her children’s activities, she said.

“We had to,” he said. "But that didn’t make me feel good at all.”

Number of jobs gained or lost in metro Atlanta

February: 3,500

March: -10,700

April: -307,900

May: 52,800

June: 87,600

July: 14,100 August: 24,200

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor

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Total number of jobs in metro Atlanta

February: 2,866,100

April: 2,547,500

August: 2,726,200

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor

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Number of people in metro Atlanta labor force*

Pre-pandemic, February: 3,139,975

Pandemic ebb, April: 2,930,563

Most recent, August: 2,966,836

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor

*Labor force includes everyone who has a job or is actively seeking work

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Share of Georgia population that has a job

Record high: 67.1%, (April, 2000)

Pre-pandemic low: 56.7% (March, 2010)

Pandemic low: 51.7% (April, 2020)

Recent: 55.7% (August, 2020)

Sources: Bureau of Labor Statistics, Georgia Department of Labor

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