While analysts debate whether the COVID-19 pandemic is finally loosening its grip on the American economy, improved employment numbers in Bradley County could be a promising sign for the local outlook.
For June, the Bradley County jobless rate had dropped for the second consecutive month — to 8.5% — since peaking in April at 13.6%, according to latest data from the Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
In May, the local unemployment mark had trickled to 9.5%, and was later revised to 9.3% before enjoying the continued plummet in June.
Patrick Todd, statistical analyst supervisor for the state department, was not available for comment to the Cleveland Daily Banner, but a local fixture with a long career in economic development believes Bradley County is better prepared for a rebound because of its employment diversity.
Doug Berry, vice president of economic development for the Cleveland/Bradley Chamber of Commerce, pointed to companies like Mars Wrigley, Duracell and Whirlpool whose hiring has remained steady throughout the COVID-19 shutdown period.
Speaking with the Banner in a previous interview, and later in an update made to members of the Cleveland/Bradley Industrial Development Board, Berry said the local job gains throughout the month of May could be attributed to the restart and reopening of retail, hospitality and tourism-related businesses.
These are the same types of businesses whose shutdown in April, and earlier, contributed to the unemployment rise, he said.
“Manufacturing had employment blips in March and April as it adjusted to new operating procedures to minimize employee risk, but as a whole it has remained steady,” Berry stated. “In fact, Mars Wrigley, Duracell and Whirlpool — to name a few — have been hiring during the entire shutdown.”
In addition, local construction appears to have been affected very little by the pandemic; at least, in Bradley County, Berry noted.
“Building permits are up for home construction and the local planning commissions have seen several new subdivision plats over the past few months,” he said.
In total, Berry suggested it is Bradley County’s diverse employment base that has better prepared it for the business slowdown caused by the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
Assuming the Cleveland community avoids a severe virus surge — which is striking cities across the country — Berry suggested Bradley County should be able to withstand an economic meltdown.
The local Chamber official did check his enthusiasm by pointing out a full economic recovery for COVID-19’s impact won’t happen overnight.
“While I do believe our economy is diverse enough to fare better than the typical community in Tennessee during this recession, I think we must all be prepared for a one- to two-year recovery before we will see unemployment rates settle back down to a full employment level of 4% to 5%,” Berry stressed.
For this to happen, Bradley County will need to sidestep any “… major surge in severe COVID-19 cases requiring hospitalization.”
to play a local role
As of Saturday, the Tennessee Department of Public Health had recorded Bradley County with 1,390 total confirmed cases of COVID-19, dating back to late March when the community announced its first infection. Ranked 10th highest of Tennessee’s 95 counties, the figure included 461 active cases, meaning that 920 were recovered since first contracting the virus.
Although Bradley County’s number of active cases had consistently gone down last week, the totals began to rise again on both Friday and Saturday. Bradley County has recorded nine COVID-related deaths, which is another factor in the decision by many local businesses to now require customers to wear face coverings.
It’s a point that Berry addressed earlier.
“I must take this opportunity to point out that social distancing and mask-wearing must become more widespread if we are going to avoid a second outbreak,” Berry stated. “The primary reason for establishing the guidelines is to ensure that our healthcare system is not overrun, enabling proper care for those suffering from the most severe cases.”
Through his own actions, Bradley County Mayor D. Gary Davis concurs. Although the longtime county government leader has declined to impose a face-mask mandate countywide, he does continue to stress four safety guidelines: Wash hands frequently, remember the six-foot rule, avoid large gatherings and wear a mask when in public.
Davis, himself, wears a mask while in the public and during government meetings of any type. Without declaring a facial-covering mandate, Davis has spent time and used opportunities during Bradley County Commission meetings to stress the importance of wearing face masks while in public.
Cleveland Mayor Kevin Brooks, who is still recovering from double pneumonia and COVID-19, is doing much the same. Brooks continues to implore local residents to follow social-distancing guidelines and to take face masks seriously. He also takes his recommendations a step further by encouraging COVID-19 survivors to donate their plasma.
Brooks credits donated plasma as being integral in his recovery. Brooks spent 11 days in the intensive care unit at Tennova Healthcare-Cleveland. His original diagnosis was double pneumonia, but in a third COVID-19 test, doctors determined he had contracted the coronavirus.
are getting serious
about face masks
Over the past week, multiple Cleveland and Bradley County businesses — ranging in size from small family operations to big-box stores — have begun requiring customers to wear facial coverings before being allowed entry.
In looking ahead to Cleveland’s economic fortunes, Berry responded with an emphatic “yes” when asked by the Banner if unemployment numbers would continue to go down if a second wave of the coronavirus can be avoided.
“A second wave could easily take us back to a 12% to 13% unemployment rate,” Berry said.
Asked if he feels there are shuttered businesses in Cleveland that will never reopen because of COVID-19’s impact, Berry said there’s not an easy answer.
“That’s a tough question to answer right now,” Berry stressed. “We most certainly see business loss over time due to COVID, and most of those are in the retail/restaurant sector.”
Tourism-related businesses are also taking a hit because of the reduction in cross-state travel, he added.
across S.E. region
Of Bradley County’s latest jobless rate — 8.5% in June — it is the second lowest mark in the Southeast Tennessee region. But surprisingly, the local figure isn’t lagging behind the larger metro market of Hamilton County. Instead, the area’s lowest jobless rate is found in neighboring Polk County where tourism and recreation have resumed.
As of June, the Polk rate was 8.3%.
Among Bradley County’s other neighbors, the jobless picture for June included: Hamilton, 9.2%, down from 10% in May; McMinn, 9.9%, down from 11.4%; Meigs, 10.7%, down from 11.5%; Monroe, 9.9%, down from 12.4%; and Rhea, 10.8%, down from 12.9%.
Bradley’s unemployment rate placed it in a five-way tie for the state’s 23rd lowest mark. Sharing the tally were Anderson, Hardin, Macon and Putnam counties.
For the month of June, 74 counties — out of 95 — recorded unemployment drops, 17 suffered increases and four remained unchanged.
Sixty-two counties reported jobless rates ranging from 5 to 9.9%, and 33 recorded marks in excess of 10%.
Tennessee’s lowest unemployment figures for June were found in Williamson, 6.7%; Crockett, 6.8%; Pickett, 7.2%; Overton, Humphreys, Hickman, Stewart and Chester counties, 7.4%; Dickson, 7.6%; and Moore, 7.7%.
Highest rates were recorded in Shelby, 13.2%; Grundy, 13.1; Cocke and Warren, 12.7%; Sevier and Marshall, 12.6%; Davidson, 12.1%; Haywood, 11.8%; and Lauderdale and DeKalb counties, 11.6%.
Statewide, Tennessee’s jobless rate for June (not seasonally adjusted) was 10.1% and the U.S. mark was 11.2%. Seasonally adjusted, the state figure was 9.7% and the national rate was 11.1%.
County rates are not seasonally adjusted. U.S. and state departments seasonally adjust unemployment rates to remove the influence of variables like weather, scheduled school closings, seasonal company shutdowns and holidays.
claims were down,
but now fluctuating
Looking at the number of unemployment claims filed in Tennessee since mid-March shows a weekly decline that started during the week ending April 11 at 74,772 new claims, and the drop continued until the week ending June 13 at 19,925 new claims filed.
Since mid-June, the numbers have fluctuated week to week. They include:
• W/E June 20 — 21,155 new claims;
• W/E June 27 — 22,256 new claims;
• W/E July 4 — 25,843 new claims;
• W/E July 11 — 22,431 new claims; and
• W/E July 18 — 25,794.
Since March 15, some 740,123 Tennessee workers have filed unemployment claims. As of week-ending July 18, the state was still paying 243,405 jobless claims, according to Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development data.