Georgia unemployment claims up, but slowing

ATLANTA — First-time claims for unemployment insurance in Georgia increased in May, but at a rate that suggested the pace of job losses may be slowing across the state, Department of Labor officials said Thursday.

As Georgians collecting unemployment do so for longer, the state insurance trust fund balance fell by more than $369.4 million from January through May.

The latest claims point to an employment picture that’s improving, but still has a long way to go, Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond said.

“Fewer Georgians are losing their jobs,” he said. “However, for those who are unemployed, they’re remaining without work for longer periods.”

May saw 75,436 first-time claims by laid off workers statewide, a 68.7 percent increase from last May. It’s the second month of double-digit year-over-year increases. By comparison, March filings were up 126.3 percent over the previous year.

“The over-the-year increases in initial claims have declined from the triple-digits we experienced earlier in the year,” Thurmond said. “I remain hopeful that Georgia’s job losses will continue to decline.”

New jobless claims grew sharply in areas heavy in manufacturing and retail. Gainesville, a manufacturing hub producing everything from roof insulation to marble bathroom sinks, led the state with an increase of 136.2 percent from last May.

Brunswick and Augusta were close behind, with year-to-year increases of 132.9 percent and 115.8 percent respectively.

Valdosta was among three other Georgia cities recording the lowest increases.

Statewide, the total number of jobless workers receiving unemployment insurance benefits rose 110 percent over the year, from 74,981 in May 2008 to 157,544.

Those workers are staying on unemployment for an average of 12.4 weeks, up from 11 weeks in recent months.

“It’s been trending upward,” Thurmond said, explaining that while labor officials actively help the jobless find employment, there are fewer spots to squeeze them into. “You have a surplus of job seekers.”

Nationwide, job openings numbered 2.5 million at the end of April, the lowest since December 2000, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics announced Tuesday.

Supporting throngs of jobless, meanwhile, has taken a toll on the state unemployment insurance trust fund.

The fund, a nest egg comprised of taxes paid by businesses, lost an average of $123.1 million a month between January and April, closing out May with just over $553 million on hand, compared to $1.3 billion in there last May.

“The systems that support the unemployed are being stretched to the max, and that includes our trust fund,” said Thurmond, adding that while $220.3 million in federal funds announced last week has pushed the balance up, it’s still only a slight improvement.

“You have to put it all in perspective,” he said. “Last month, we paid out $152 million in benefits.”