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Georgia jobless rate falls in May as some return to work

In this file photo, a help wanted sign appears on a bus stop in front of a McDonald's restaurant.
In this file photo, a help wanted sign appears on a bus stop in front of a McDonald's restaurant. (Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

ATLANTA – Georgia’s jobless rate fell to 9.7% in May from 12.6% in April as nearly 150,000 workers reported being back on the job.

The state’s unemployment rate is still sky-high compared to last year, when it was 3.6% in May 2019. But the decrease could mean that Georgia won’t spend years with elevated unemployment, unlike the 29 consecutive months from summer 2009 to fall 2011 when the state recorded double-digit jobless rates.

The COVID-19 pandemic and ensuing shutdown led to a record-setting spike in unemployment. The new figures revise Georgia’s April jobless rate up to 12.6% from the originally announced 11.9%, which itself was an all-time high since the current figures started being kept in 1976.

Even with May’s recovery, the number of Georgians telling surveyors they are unemployed is almost 500,000. And another 250,000 people have stopped looking for a job since March. If they were still in the labor force and reported themselves as unemployed, Georgia’s jobless rate would be above 14%.

The nationwide unemployment rate in May fell to 13.3% from 14.7% in April. A year ago, the nationwide jobless rate was 3.6%.

Payroll jobs in Georgia rose by almost 100,000 to 4.2 million, according to a separate survey that showed a more modest employment recovery. That’s down almost 9% from May 2019 levels. Many economists consider payroll jobs their most important economic measure.

The strongest rebound in payroll jobs came in the restaurant and hotel sector, which had suffered the heaviest losses.

“I think we are going to continue to see big drops in the unemployment rate as Georgia continues to open back up,” Labor Commissioner Mark Butler, an elected Republican, said in a statement.

The number of Georgians filing new unemployment benefit claims last week was 131,000, down slightly from the previous week. More than 2.5 million claims have been filed since mid-March, a number that would represent half the state’s pre-pandemic workforce, but that number may represent duplicate claims and far fewer people have been awarded benefits.

The number of people drawing benefits fell to 678,000 last week, down from a high of 885,000 in early May. Some of those people may be working some and still drawing benefits, especially after Butler decreed that workers could earn up to $300 a week without sacrificing any of their state benefits.

Georgia has paid more than $6 billion in state and federal benefits in the last 13 weeks, including $1.6 billion in state benefits. The state’s unemployment trust fund, the savings account it builds up from unemployment taxes charged to workers and employees during good times, has fallen by half since March to under $1.3 billion.