Former White House Economic Adviser Says TN Unemployment Will Get Worse Before It Gets Better

May 22, 2020

The unemployment rates for the state (blue) and the nation (orange) jumped more than 10 percentage points between March and April.
Credit Courtesy Tennessee Department of Labor and Workforce Development

Tennessee’s unemployment rate is the worst it’s been in a generation, and reflects the most sudden loss of jobs on record, state officials say. The April unemployment rate was 14.7%, which matches the national figure.

Marianne Wanamaker, a labor economist who served on the White House Council of Economic Advisors, says the jump is historic.

“It’s gigantic. I mean we’ve not seen anything like this since the Great Depression. And it’s going to get higher,” Wanamaker says. “It’ll get worse before it gets better.”

Wanamaker is also an associate professor at the University of Tennessee. She says economists predict unemployment rates to peak in May and begin recovering in June. But that depends on the course of the virus.

A report this week from Tennessee’s labor department shows more than 375,000 positions were lost between March and April. About 40% of the losses were from the leisure and hospitality industries.

Businesses like restaurants and hotels have been devastated by the virus, and Wanamaker says it could be a while before those jobs return.

“The prospects for those industries returning is pretty mixed. I think it’s going to take a very long time … so I don’t anticipate that we’ll see a full return in, for example, hotel occupancy or airline occupancy, for months and probably years.”

Wanamaker says the state wasn’t overly reliant on those industries, though, which helped keep the state’s 14.7% unemployment rate on par with the national rate.

She says there are some encouraging numbers from the report. Jobs remained relatively stable in the banking and government sectors, as well as construction. Wanamaker also says the state government is relatively well-positioned.

“The state of Tennessee is incredibly well-run from a fiscal perspective,” she says. “We can go a lot longer with depressed revenues before state employees start losing their jobs.”

Last week, nearly 29,000 additional Tennesseans filed for unemployment, bringing the total number of people applying for help since March 15 to more than 500,000.

This story was reported by WPLN