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Closed stores line an empty street in the French Quarter amid the coronavirus pandemic in New Orleans, Friday, March 27, 2020.

About one out of every four workers in New Orleans is without a job because of the coronavirus pandemic, topping the state just ahead of Baton Rouge at 21% without jobs and Lafayette at nearly 19%.

Those numbers in a University of Louisiana Lafayette report compare to a near-15% national unemployment rate reported Friday that already rivals the Depression-era. Analysts estimate national unemployment actually is closer to 24%, just under New Orleans' 25%, when additional jobless claims and unemployed workers are factored in since the April rate was tallied in the middle of last month.

The unemployment rates estimated for Louisiana metro regions are based on more recent weekly first-time jobless claims filed with the Louisiana Workforce Commission, going from the week ending March 21 to May 2, analyzed by Stephen Barnes, an associate professor and director of the University of Louisiana Lafayette’s Blanco Public Policy Center Director.

He said the jobless claims also appear to be hitting a plateau, leveling off from the initial hit as stay-at-home orders were put place in mid-March to contain the spread of the virus. Those orders were extended from an April 30 expiration to May 15, with plans going forward to be announced Monday.

The state ordered schools and universities closed in March and shut down businesses such as bars, gyms, hair salons, spas, movie theaters and casinos and limited restaurants to only delivery, take-out or drive-thru service to avoid large gatherings and close contacts. Restaurants can now provide outside seating, with social-distancing and other restrictions in place.

One of the reasons New Orleans appears to be doing so poorly is the fact the city is so dependent upon the tourism industry, which has been devastated by global efforts to stop the virus.

An estimated 54% of people statewide who worked in the accommodation and food service industry are now unemployed, based on initial unemployment filings, Barnes said. The unemployment rate in the arts, entertainment and recreation sector, which includes casinos and museums, is at nearly 46%. Educational services unemployment is at 34%, information 33% and retail trade 24%.

Industries that are holding up relatively well include finance and insurance, where the unemployment rate is pegged at 5.2%, utilities at 6.7% and agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting at 6.8%. Mining, which includes the oil and gas industry, is estimated to have an unemployment rate of 12.3%. Companies in the energy industry have been trying to hold on to workers as best as they can, despite the low prices for crude oil and natural gas.

The number of jobless workers were compared against 2018 employment statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis, Barnes said. The reasoning for using 2018 statistics as a barometer is because those BEA figures include the number of people who are self-employed or independent contractors, such as those who drive for Uber, Lyft or Waitr. Barnes said he used the older numbers to give a more complete picture because self-employed and independent contractors are now eligible to file for unemployment as part of the federal coronavirus relief package. That's something they weren't eligible to claim before, he said.

The state pays a maximum $247 per week for unemployment, with the federal government kicking in an additional $600 per week from a $2.2 trillion coronavirus relief package passed by Congress. 

Statewide unemployment figures for April won't be released until May 22, and metro area data will be released about a week later.

Loren Scott, a Baton Rouge economist and consultant, said the April unemployment numbers for Louisiana “are gonna be ugly.”

Not only is the state getting hit by the coronavirus and related business shutdowns, but its having to deal with low oil prices. “Louisiana is going to be much slower than the rest of the country in coming out of this,” Scott said.

Some economists have said a significant portion of the people who are currently unemployed will be hired back quickly, once businesses reopen from the shutdown.

“One side that was very positive before we went into this was the national economy was very solid,” Scott said. “We had 127 straight months of a boom period and nobody was forecasting a recession.”

Barnes said the number of new claims and continuing claims appear to have plateaued, but still at levels well above traditional unemployment.

For the week ending May 2, there were 50,941 new claims, compared to 66,141 for the week ending April 25 and 91,923 for the week ending April 18, according to data from the workforce commission. In comparison, for the week ending May 4 a year ago there were only 2,009 new unemployment filings.

After jumping from 217,532 continuing claims for the week ending April 11 to 246,296 on April 18 and 300,657 on April 25, continuing claims were up by less than 10,000, to 310,013. A year ago for the week ending May 4, there were 13,841 continuing unemployment claims.

There’s a large gap between the number of people who have filed for first-time claims and those who are getting unemployment checks, Barnes said. More than 500,000 people have filed for claims.

It appears that many people are filing for unemployment but don’t have the documentation to prove they were working, Barnes said. “That’s some indication of the number of people who are looking for help,” he said.

Barnes' estimates for unemployment in other metro area around the state are Houma, 18.3%; Lake Charles, 18.1%; Alexandria, 15.2%; Shreveport, 16.0%; and Monroe, 15.1%.

As bad as the numbers are nationally, they don't capture the full devastation wrought by the business shutdowns.

The U.S. Labor Department said its survey-takers erroneously classified millions of Americans as employed in April even though their employers had closed down. If they had been counted correctly, the unemployment rate would have been nearly 20%, the government said.

Also, people who are out of work but aren't actually looking for a new job are not officially counted as unemployed. An estimated 6.4 million people lost jobs last month but did not search for new ones, most likely because they saw little prospect of finding work with the economy shut down, the department said.

Counting them as unemployed would push the rate up higher to 24%, according to calculations by Heidi Shierholz, an economist at the Economic Policy Institute.


Email Timothy Boone at tboone@theadvocate.com.