Jobless rate still rising in Rockdale

CONYERS - Every day is a challenge for the thousands of jobless Rockdale County residents, and it is hard to tell if the light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter.

Rockdale County's most current unemployment rate was 11.7 percent in July, according to Sheila Hightower, manager of the Georgia Department of Labor career center in DeKalb County.

Local residents report to the DeKalb County center for employment service, and Hightower estimated 19,000 a month come in to file for unemployment insurance benefits, get help with their resumes or just look for a job.

"There has been a tremendous amount of customers that we have been serving," Hightower said, adding she has not seen anything like it in more than 20 years.

In fact, Hightower is right, considering unemployment rates are the highest since the 1980s.

Rockdale County is also seeing an increase in the number of residents seeking unemployment benefits for the first time. There were 4,320 initial claims for unemployment benefits from January through July, compared to the 2,453 during the same time last year, according to Sam Hall, communications director at the state Department of Labor.

"Layoffs in manufacturing, retail trade and construction have contributed to the increase in job losses in Rockdale County," Hall said.

Unemployment for the state as a whole recently climbed to 10.3 percent.

"There's a lot of misery when 10 percent of the labor force is without a job," said Dr. Frank Maddox, an associate economics professor at Oxford College in Oxford.

Maddox explained the economy goes into recession when production, or the Gross Domestic Product, contracts.

"We (have) just gotten news that GDP has stopped shrinking and started to expand again," Maddox said.

That happened in August. But the current expansion won't be enough to stop unemployment from increasing.

"Even though GDP will go up, GDP has to go up more in order for firms to start hiring again," Maddox said. "There's a tendency for unemployment to actually continue to get worse, even though the economy has turned around."

"The scary thing is we might see GDP contract again," Maddox added.

National unemployment stands on the brink of 10 percent, which Maddox said is not unprecedented, citing the 25 percent unemployment rate during the Great Depression.

"In our country, (if) you don't have a job, your access to goods and services is hugely limited," Maddox said.

Unemployment benefits for individuals are stretching to two to three years with extensions, added Hightower.

Benefits typically last six to 26 weeks. However, new laws now allow Georgians to apply for extensions up to three times, a total of 53 additional weeks if approved.

For many, unemployment benefits have become a vital lifeline.

"But some people depend on that money just to live and pay their bills. So the extension has helped people to survive," Hightower said.

In the meantime, she has noticed the job-seeker is coping by "broadening their scope," transferring old skills or learning new ones to meet current job market demands.

"I find that a lot of people have been accepting jobs through some of the temporary agencies," Hightower said. "As long as people are willing to travel, then they have opportunities that are available to them ... the main thing is remaining positive."

Alena Parker can be reached at alena.parker@rockdalecitizen.com.