Georgia expecting historic surge in jobless claims

Restaurants are shuttered, malls are closed, events are cancelled and travel is down to a trickle. Georgia bracing for a historic wave of joblessness.
Restaurants are shuttered, malls are closed, events are cancelled and travel is down to a trickle. Georgia bracing for a historic wave of joblessness.

Georgia officials are expected Thursday to announce a historic surge in unemployment claims, with massive numbers of workers laid off from restaurants, stores and other businesses as the coronavirus crisis deepens.

Meanwhile, Congress and the White House were wrestling over a massive deal that is expected to extend the length of time a person can collect unemployment benefits, offer small companies emergency loans, bail out some big firms and send checks to most American households.

In Georgia, as in much of the country, businesses have shut down, public gatherings are banned, and many cities have issued shelter-in-place orders as officials work to slow the spread of the virus.

The longer the crisis, the worse the economic damage, said Atlanta-based Michael Wald, former senior economist at the U.S. Department of Labor. “A number of small businesses will collapse if the downturn continues for 90 days or longer. They will disappear.”

Thursday morning, the U.S. Labor Department announced that 3.28 million Americans filed for unemployment insurance last week.

In filings with the state Department of Labor, a number of companies have declared plans to cut jobs, at least temporarily.

Piolax in Cherokee County, which makes plastics and metal-fastening products for vehicles, this week said it is laying off 359 workers because the manufacturers that use its goods are shut down.

Also Airport Retail Management in Clayton is laying off 196; Punch Bowl Social in Fulton is slashing 173 jobs; and Crestline Hotels & Resorts in DeKalb is cutting 126.

Economists say this week’s job cuts – which will be reported next week – are likely to be worse.

And whatever the number announced by the state Thursday, it will not include contract and “gig” workers – or the self-employed – who are generally not eligible for unemployment benefits since they are not officially on a company’s payroll.

Some workers also won’t bother to file for unemployment claims, since Georgia’s benefits are modest, averaging 43% of a worker’s pay for a maximum of 14 weeks, Wald said.

“I expect that the jobless claims will continue to grow over the next month, at least,” he said. “But, even with the large growth, the jobless claims understate the true numbers of unemployed.”

Nationally, roughly 37 million jobs are on shaky ground, including nearly 30% of the jobs in Georgia, according to a study by economists at Cornell University.

The largest categories at risk in Georgia are the roughly 386,000 people who are employed at restaurants and bars, 167,000 people placed by staffing companies and 108,200 in retail work.

Georgia officials have hinted that Thursday’s report will show between 25,000 and 30,000 new filings for unemployment insurance, compared to 5,538 claims filed during the previous reported week.

"The jobs that are most at risk are the ones that require interpersonal behavior," said economist Jason Delaney, an assistant dean at Georgia Gwinnett College. "You can't order a haircut on Amazon."

The most vulnerable for layoff are the youngest, the oldest and the most recently hired employees, Delaney said.

Yet, even in the worst of times, not every company is getting rid of workers.

Allied Universal, a security company, plans to hire at least 100 people in metro Atlanta, including guards, drivers, accounting help and software engineers, according to a spokeswoman.

Among companies with job listings carried by the state Labor Department are: the U.S. Census; Foundation Food Group in Gainesville; Sam's Club in Marietta and Woodstock; Marietta schools; grocery stores in various locations, including Kroger, Publix, Ingles, Aldi and Winn Dixie; Pepsi; and FedEx and UPS in various locations.

In Washington, the U.S. House of Representatives adjourned Wednesday without passing the $2 trillion coronavirus stimulus package. Several Republican senators had threatened to delay the legislation over a proposed increase to unemployment insurance. Bernie Sanders, an independent seeking the Democratic presidential nomination, also

opposed the measure.

However, by late Wednesday, the Senate had unanimously approved a package which will now go back to the House.

Most experts agree that some kind of large-bore measure is needed quickly.

The economic plunge can be halted within a couple months, once the federal government and the Federal Reserve Bank are pouring money into the economy, said Mark Vitner, senior economist for Wells Fargo.

Even so, it will be the most severe recession since the Great Depression when measured by contraction of the nation’s commerce, he said. “We are going to lose about 14 million jobs, and two-thirds of those are in the restaurant and hospitality industries.”

Staff writer Christopher Quinn contributed to this story.