RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – More than one million people have filed for unemployment benefits in North Carolina since the COVID-19 pandemic began, according to data released Friday from the state’s Division of Employment Security.
Also on Friday, the U.S. Labor Department reported that the nation’s unemployment rate fell in May to 13.3 percent, down from 14.7 percent in April, surprising economists who had expected it to keep climbing.
“There were some forecasts of 20 percent unemployment. Totally wrong,” said NC State economist Mike Walden. “This is still high, but we’re going in the right direction. You look at almost every category, jobs were up, especially hospitality.”
The nation added about 2.5 million jobs in May, according to the Labor Department. Like many other economists, Walden had anticipated the unemployment rate to continue to climb, projecting it to go to the high teens.
The unemployment rate remains higher than it’s been during any other recession since World War II, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“The reopening that started in most states in May really had an effect that we weren’t expecting,” said Walden. “We’ll see if this continues into June, but I would expect that we’re now on a positive note for the economy rather than a negative note.”
Steve Cox, who owns Steve’s Barber Shop in Raleigh, was among the people who went back to work in May as Gov. Roy Cooper (D) began to lift COVID-19 restrictions in North Carolina.
“We had no idea when we were coming back to work, and the bills were still coming in,” he said. “You try to prepare for things like that. Nobody could really prepare for something like this.”
Cox has made several adaptations to be able to operate amid the pandemic, including wearing a mask when he cuts his customers’ hair and requiring people to make appointments.
“There’s been some positives and negatives from it,” he said. “We could have taken steps, safeguards, could have done those things without totally shutting down.”
Jenni Propst, who lives in Charlotte and works backstage at performance and event venues, has been out of work since early March. She started receiving unemployment benefits in late April.
“The live-event industry and the arts, we’re suffering a lot,” Propst said. “Our industry’s not going to come back as fast as hospitality and those types of things.”
She said hundreds of people had expected to begin work next month to prepare for the Republican National Convention, which had been scheduled to begin August 24. Now that RNC officials are looking at other states to host prime time events, including President Donald Trump’s address, Propst said she doesn’t anticipate going back to work until October at the earliest.
“We have a big concert scheduled for mid-October and not a whole lot more before that,” she said. “I’m pretty doubtful that we’ll be back at work any time particularly soon and it’ll be long after unemployment benefits run out.”
Propst is receiving an additional $600 per week from the federal government, which is set to end at the end of July.
Walden said while some people are making more money right now on unemployment than they do in their regular jobs, that does not appear to be having a substantial impact on the overall labor force returning to work.
“That would have been reflected in what we call the labor force numbers. The labor force numbers went up. So, it doesn’t look like that factor… held the economy back in May,” Walden said.