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Posted: November 26, 2008 5:00 a.m.

Laid off: unemployment on the rise in Newton

Local jobless claims soar as national economy continues downward spiral

Unemployment in Newton County continued its steady rise in September to 7.8 percent, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Labor.

The county’s unemployment rate has been steadily increasing since January, when it stood at 6.3 percent.

Though the rate of unemployment for October is not yet known, it is highly likely that it is greater than 7.8 percent as 867 newly unemployed workers filed for their initial unemployment insurance claims last month, compared to the 678 workers that filed in September. That is a one-month increase of 27.9 percent and an increase of 61.5 percent from the same time last year.

According to the Georgia Department of Labor, of the county’s 46,189 workers, 2,890 of them were unemployed in September.

Unemployment in Newton County is also greater than in other parts of the region, state and nation. The county’s unemployment rate peaked at 8 percent in July.

For the Northeast region of the state, which includes Newton County, the unemployment rate in September was 6.6 percent. For the entire state it was 6.5 percent and for the entire nation it was 6.1 percent.

Unemployment in Georgia used to be lower than the national average. In March, the rate of unemployment in the state was one-tenth of a point below the national average.

Compared to its neighboring counties, Newton County’s unemployment rate is also higher. In September Rockdale County had a rate of 7.3 percent and Walton County had a rate of 6.7 percent. The only county that abuts Newton that had a higher unemployment rate was Jasper with a rate of 8.5 percent, though it should also be noted that Jasper County has a much smaller work force.

Many of the recent increases in unemployment in Newton County can be traced to the spiraling decline of the county’s housing industry. Five years ago, the county’s robust housing industry was creating hundreds of new jobs and was the engine erecting thousands of homes to house a burgeoning population that lead to the U.S. Census Bureau naming Newton County the 11th fastest growing county in the United States from the period of 2000-2006.

But just as quickly as the county’s gains in housing jobs materialized, just as quickly did they disappear with the popping of the housing bubble and a rising tide of foreclosures. For more than a year now, Newton County’s housing industry has been in a precipitous decline, taking with it many local jobs.

According to Andrea Hammond, executive officer of the Newton County Home Builders Association, the NCHBA has lost more than 100 members in the last year. There are likely more builder losses than that, as not every builder is a member of NCHBA, she said.

As county builders go out of business, they take with them many subcontracting jobs for electricians, painters, carpenters, etc. Other businesses such as the car dealerships that sold trucks to subcontractors and the fast food restaurants that previously did a steady lunch business feeding hungry construction workers have seen their profits decline as well said Hammond.

"It’s a huge trickle down affect," Hammond said. "If builders aren’t building, painters aren’t painting, landscapers aren’t landscaping."

In 2006, the latest date statistics were available, the U.S. Census bureau estimated that 4,100 Newton County residents were employed in construction. Comparatively 6,700 workers were employed in manufacturing and 5,700 workers were employed in retail.

Increases in unemployment are having a ripple affect around the county. In the last several weeks several ministries that distribute aid to the needy had to temporarily shut their doors when they ran out of food and funds, so great were the requests for help.

Two weeks ago Rosalee Thompson, director of the Community Food Pantry, said in her more than 20 years distributing aid to the poor she had never before seen such a need in the community. Likewise Bob Furnad, chairman of FaithWorks, said in all of his years of ministerial work he had never experienced such an enormous need.

The food pantry and FaithWorks are open again after member churches and alarmed residents rushed to their aid with emergency donations. But with the economy showing no signs of turning around any time soon, the ministries’ ability to continue to administer to the poor will rely on the continued charitable contributions of local residents, who are no doubt feeling the financial pinch themselves.

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