By Johnny Jackson
Local officials are unsure what impact the state's record-high unemployment rate will have on business, industry, workers and local economies in the Southern Crescent.
The Georgia Department of Labor reported earlier this week that the state's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate had risen 1.1 percent, to a record-high 8.6 percent for the month of January. It is the highest rate since officials first started documenting the statistic in 1976.
The previous record was 8.3 percent, in January 1983. The jobless rate this time last year was 5.2 percent.
The unemployment rate in the Southern Crescent has increased steadily since April 2008, along with the state's jobless rate, which, for the 15th consecutive month, outpaced the national average.
"Obviously, the economic downturn isn't just hitting Georgia, or the country," said Bob White, executive director of the Henry County Development Authority. "It's truly global, and Henry County certainly hasn't escaped."
There are currently 412,770 unemployed Georgians looking for work, nearly 63 percent more than last year. Of that number, 183,829 (about 45 percent) are receiving unemployment insurance benefits.
In January, 2,864 benefits claims were filed for Clayton County; 1,465 were filed for Henry County, nearly twice the number who filed during the same time a year prior.
"Unlike some communities that are suffering a closing of a single, major employer, our downturn in Henry County is more closely linked to the trickle down hitting the home building and development markets," White said. "Builders aren't building, landscapers aren't landscaping, etc., so we've probably lost several thousand construction-related jobs over the past year."
He said the retail industry, a major job creator for Henry, has slowed some, though it continues to be recharged by the opening of new retail stores.
"I think we'll continue to see an up-tick in that sector in the spring and summer," he said. "On the industrial front, we're continuing to see some activity - although not at as high a level as in recent years. But we're confident that conditions will continue to improve later this year.
"The jury is still out on the impact and the timing of the federal economic stimulus package," White continued. "So, we'll have to just adopt a 'wait and see' attitude."
Job creation in Clayton is based, in large part, on redevelopment projects in the county.
"I think we're probably facing some of the same challenges as Henry," said Grant Wainscott, Clayton County's director of economic development. "We do have companies investing and bringing new jobs to the area.
"I don't think anyone could have foreseen the depth of this economic recession," he said. "But our job is to mitigate national economic struggles and create new projects locally. We're trying to create new jobs and, at the same time, help our existing industries."
Clayton, however, has a diverse infrastructure of existing industries, unlike Henry and several other counties, which, in recent years, have relied heavily on new-construction-related jobs.
"If you've got to find a silver lining, that's one thing that will impact us less than other communities," Wainscott said. "A lot of what we focus on is redevelopment."
In the state's Department of Labor monthly report, there were jobs created in Georgia in education and health services and within the federal government. More jobs, however, were lost across the state in manufacturing, construction, trade, transportation, and warehousing, as well as within the professional and business services industries.
People are still optimistic, according to Mark Connally, manager of the Clayton County Regional Career Center. The center, which serves Henry, Clayton, and Fayette counties, sees hundreds of job seekers daily.
"Most of the people that we talk to now, I feel like they are becoming more optimistic about the job market," Connally said. "They are actually more open-minded to working in fields they had not worked in, in the past. They believe that there are some jobs out there, and they are looking for different ways to job search."
The career center averages roughly 300 people per day, who are applying for unemployment benefits, or who are looking for resources to find jobs. "On a Monday or Tuesday, we can average between 500 to 800 people," said Connally. "I think the common concern is that people are really anxious to get back to work, and they want to find a job before their benefits run out."
The unemployed typically receive benefits (up to $330 a week) for up to 26 weeks. Extended benefits are on a case-by-case basis.
"We are officially sailing in uncharted economic waters," said State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond. "Georgia is in the midst of a severe economic downturn. Times are difficult, but not hopeless. All Georgians must work together to meet and overcome these unprecedented challenges."