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As unemployment grows, leaders eye reopening

The Alabama Department of Labor (ADOL) released its latest unemployment figures for the state Friday, showing that the state’s unemployment rate was 3.5 percent, up from February’s record-low 2.7 percent and above last year’s rate of 3.3 percent.

Locally, Selma’s unemployment rate of 6.8 percent – up from last month’s rate of 5.9 percent but still better than last year’s rate of 7.0 percent – was the highest among “major cities” in the state.

The unemployment rate in Dallas County for March was 5.8 percent, up slightly from last month’s 5.1 percent but even with last year’s rate.

The latest numbers, however, don’t fully show the impact that the COVID-19 pandemic has had on workers and businesses in the state, which didn’t document its first case until the middle of the month and didn’t begin putting in place stringent restrictions until a week or so later.

A breakdown of weekly unemployment figures shows that 760 new unemployment claims were filed in Dallas County last week, down from the 1,019 filed the week before but still more than the 460 filed the last week of March, meaning that nearly 2,240 residents of Dallas County have filed for unemployment in the last three weeks.

A February unemployment recap states that just over 13,851 people in the county were employed – this means that, using the number of claims filed over the last three weeks versus the number of employed people documented in February, that just over 16 percent of Dallas County’s workforce has filed for unemployment over the last three weeks.

The issue is the same statewide, which has state leaders pondering reopening the state for business – earlier this week, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey announced that a state task force is already hatching a plan to reopen the state, with help from Congressional leaders and health officials, when the current “stay at home” order expires later this month.

Locally, the idea of reopening the state and loosening restrictions so that businesses can once again operate and workers can return to jobs has support – both Selma-Dallas Economic Development Authority (EDA) Director Wayne Vardaman and Selma-Dallas County Chamber of Commerce Director Sheryl Smedley voiced support for the move, provided precautions are in place to protect the public.

For his part, Vardaman said the current unemployment crisis has little to do with the area’s major industries and manufacturers, most of which are still operating at full-tilt.

“We’re good here,” Vardaman said, noting that more than 20 counties fared worse than Dallas County in the weekly unemployment report. “Our industries are up and running, just about every one of them.”

According to Vardaman, local manufacturers associated with the automotive industry, including Seoyon E-Hwa, Lear and Honda Lock-America (HLA), have been the only ones significantly impacted by the growing economic crisis – the companies have furloughed some workers until May 4.

“When you look at that, those plants probably had between 700 and 800 employees,” Vardaman said. “That’s a majority of the [unemployment] numbers. Our numbers are not coming from manufacturing, other than that group. As a whole, the numbers in manufacturing are great.”

Contrarily, Vardaman said, the brunt of the pandemic-induced financial difficulties have been borne by small businesses.

“That’s where we’re hurting,” Vardaman said. “If you look at the entire picture, you can understand why we have to give serious consideration to reopening. If we don’t, there’s some of these business owners that won’t have anything to come back to.”

Unlike the manufacturing sector, which Vardaman said is in place to ramp up operations to a normal pace quickly, small businesses will be forced to open up slowly, meaning an even longer stretch of time before they’re seeing revenues similar to those enjoyed before the pandemic.

“We’re dealing with a new normal,” Vardaman said. “A lot of [these precautions] may continue.”

Smedley agreed.

“We know that business is not going to be as usual,” Smedley said. “It’s going to be completely changed. But I think we all know this: something has got to be done or our local economy is not going to survive. Nobody saw this coming. How can our businesses sustain?”

Smedley noted that the governor’s task force is already drafting blueprints for what a reopening might look like – occupancy restrictions based on square footage might be implemented for businesses; sanitation requirements might be put in place – but noted that health precautions would likely last well past the reopening date, which would likely be different for every region.

“We’re going to be wearing face masks everywhere we go,” Smedley said. “You can’t look at this thing statewide, you’ve got to look at each community.”