Austin metro unemployment jumped to 3.5% in March after over 43,000 residents sought jobless benefits amid coronavirus shutdown

The regional unemployment rate remains below statewide and national numbers. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
The regional unemployment rate remains below statewide and national numbers. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

The regional unemployment rate remains below statewide and national numbers. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)

The unemployment rate for the five-county Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area rose to 3.5% in March, up from 2.6% in February, as measures to mitigate the spread of the coronavirus struck significant blows to economies across the region and the globe.

The 0.9% month-over-month increase represents the 43,971 residents who sought jobless benefits, according to Texas Workforce Commission figures released April 17. The region’s unemployment rate remains under the statewide and national unemployment rates for the same time period, 4.7% and 4.5%, respectively.

In the Austin-Travis County area, the unemployment rate rose from 2.6% in February to 3.4% in March, representing the 25,454 residents who applied for jobless benefits during the month, according to Workforce Solutions Capital Area, a local arm of the TWC that leads workforce development initiatives, connects employers to employees and vice versa.

Tamara Atkinson, the CEO for Workforce Solutions Capital Area, said the numbers "sobering" but right on point for what she saw in the region during March.

"When you realize people's lives and livelihoods and families are behind those numbers, it's particularly sobering," Atkinson said.

Atkinson said she was not surprised to see the Austin metro still below the statewide and national unemployment rates, as the area has had a resiliency and a history of "last one in, first one out" with recessions. However, Atkinson said she was surprised to see that Texas' unemployment rate was higher than the national rate.

Since mid-March, when local and state governments began shutting down “nonessential” parts of the economy, the TWC has experienced a growing tidal wave of Texans seeking unemployment benefits. TWC spokesperson Cisco Gamez said in an email the commission's service lines have been fielding 2 million to 3 million calls per day.

“Prior to COVID-19 the average call volume was 13,000 per day and the record was 60,000,” Gamez said. “We have moved people from other departments and we are emergency hiring people for the call centers. All in all, with everyone trained and hired, it will be about 1,000 additional people. We’re also still hiring. People can find those job postings on our website at the top of the page.”

Since March 14, Gamez said the commission has distributed over $408 million in unemployment benefits and helped about 1.2 million Texans file for unemployment. Gamez said 1.2 million unemployment claims are typically seen over the course of a year and a half. Gamez said it has been hard for many people to get through the clogged telephone lines.

“We want people to understand, if they have trouble getting through, they’re going to get their benefits," Gamez said. "They’re not just going to receive benefits when they start their claim, they’re going to get those back dates as far as March 8 (or the Sunday before they were laid off). We’re going to look at that date, not the time they called it in.”

Workforce Solutions Capital Area is working to continue providing residents and businesses benefits through the health crisis.

“We’re here to help our community weather this storm, whether it’s helping impacted workers to find a job, childcare for Austin’s essential workforce, or businesses to keep their doors open and their people working,” Atkinson said in a statement.