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North Carolina's unemployment rate nearly tripled from 4.3% in March to 12.2% in April, a stark reflection of the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on the state's economy.

By comparison, the state unemployment rate reached a 33-year peak of 10.9% in 2010 as the state and national economies began their slow recoveries from the Great Recession. The Triad peak was 11.5% in February 2009.

Economists project the May jobless rate will be significantly higher since the U.S. Labor Department collects employment data during the week that contains the 12th of the month. The April report covers the churn from March 14 to April 12.

The regional and county jobless reports will be released June 3.

The data only reflects 16 days of Gov. Roy Cooper's executive order implementing stay-at-home restrictions that began March 27.

"The major reason why North Carolina had a lower overall unemployment rate rise was that it invoked a stay-at-home order a little bit later than other states did," said Zagros Madjd-Sajdadi, an economics professor at Winston-Salem State University.

"The order had a direct and immediate effect on unemployment rates, but it is unlikely that lifting the order will cause an equally dramatic reversal in the unemployment rate because many job losses were permanent."

Economists forecast that as many as 2.5 million North Carolinians may be at high- or moderate-risk for a layoff or reductions in wages, tips and work hours, or for furloughs.

"I am calling this downturn a 'mandated recession,' to distinguish it from previous recessions," said Michael Walden, an economics professor at N.C. State University.

"The recession is the medicine we have to endure in order to contain deaths and prevent the health care system from being overwhelmed."

The employer survey found a 12.5% decline in the state's non-farm workforce from 4.57 million to just under 4 million.

The private sector experienced a 14.3% decline from March to April, representing a loss of 545,700 jobs, while the government sector had a 3.5% decline representing 26,000 jobs.

As expected, the state's leisure and hospitality sector took the brunt of the job losses and furloughs with a 48.8% decline in its workforce, down 249,800 to 262,300.

The other services category had the second most impact by percentage at 20.6%, or down 33,200 to 128,000.

Also experiencing double-digit declines were: manufacturing at 10.8%, or down 51,200 to 421,500; information technology at 10.2%, or down 8,000 to 70,000; and education and health services at 10.2%, or down 63,200 to 556,900.

All 10 employment sector declined by at least 3.4%.

"The scope of the job losses is simply staggering,” said Patrick McHugh, senior economic analyst with left-leaning N.C Budget & Tax Center. “Job losses are concentrated in industries and occupations that typically pay the worst wages so a lot of the people who lost jobs in April had little or no financial cushion to fall back on."

Walden said the sector job losses are "likely worse for May."

"I wouldn’t make too much about lower rate than for the nation. The information technology sector was largely not impacted until May."

In the household survey, the state's labor force shrank by 5.7%, down 285,739 to 4.68 million.

The number of North Carolinians considered as employed dropped by 13.5%, down 643,157 to 4.11 million.

Those listed as unemployed rose by 105.7%, or up 357,418 to 573.118.

That surge in the unemployed ranks played a significant role in the state's jobless rate not reaching the 14.7% national rate for April.

Individuals without jobs who are not looking for work are not considered unemployed.

Through March, the state jobless rate had remained below the 5% threshold since January 2017. That’s the level most economists consider as representing full employment — the economic point at which everyone who wants a job has one, employers have the skilled workers they need, and there is limited inflationary pressure on wages.

The labor force data does not distinguish how many workers are full time, temporary or part time, or how many jobs people are working.

The federal labor-statistics bureau’s U6 index includes those categories. The national U6 rate is reported monthly, while states are reported quarterly.

The U6 index rate for North Carolina was 7% on March 31, compared with 22.9% nationally on April 30.

"Many of the jobs that have disappeared likely won’t be coming back anytime soon, which means state and federal leaders have to figure out a way to support people through an economic crisis unlike anything in living memory," McHugh said.

As of Friday morning, the N.C. Division of Employment Security listed 930,032 individuals as having filed a combined 1.27 million state and federal claims. DES said 573,736 claimants have received state and/or federal benefits, or 61.7% of all applicants.

Some individuals have been required to file a second claim — after being determined to be ineligible for initial state benefits — in order to qualify for federal benefits that often include extended state benefits.

With the drop in the labor force over the month, currently 23.3% of the 3.99 million North Carolinians considered in the state’s workforce as of mid-April have filed a state or federal unemployment claim.

There were 14,061 new claimants Thursday. The daily filing peak was 34,706 on March 30.

Overall unemployment-insurance benefits payments were at $2.37 billion as of Friday morning.

The breakdown is: $1.29 billion from the federal pandemic unemployment-compensation package; $666.7 million in state benefits, and $411.7 million in the federal pandemic unemployment assistance package.

With the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund at close to $3.85 billion before the brunt of the COVID-19 pandemic began to be felt, 17.3% of that money had been used as of Friday morning.

rcraver@wsjournal.com

336-727-7376

@rcraverWSJ

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