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Waco’s jobless rate has hovered near a record low 3% in recent months, but that bright picture undoubtedly will cloud up and rain as the U.S. Department of Labor on Thursday released figures showing 155,657 Texans filed for unemployment during the week ending March 21, skyrocketing from 16,176 the previous week.

Nationally, a staggering 3.3 million Americans filed for unemployment during that same period, as COVID-19 continues to plunder the economy, shuttering business and industry en masse and forcing managers and owners to choose between furloughs, work-at-home options and layoffs.

The U.S. total is up from 282,000 the previous week. Many people losing their jobs have been unable to file for unemployment as state websites and phone systems “have been overwhelmed by a crush of applicants and frozen up,” according to an Associated Press report.

Waco-based economist Ray Perryman, whose own analysis of the coronavirus’ economic impact predicts a $973 billion drag, said in an email response to questions that the discouraging job numbers were to be expected.

“Some of industries which are the hardest hit by the measures in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 are very large employers in labor-intensive sectors, including restaurants and retail stores. … We can expect the number of unemployed persons to continue to rise,” Perryman said. “Once the worst of the virus issues are past, many of these people will get their jobs back, but it will take some time for others.”

Perryman said Texas not only is seeing virus-related slowing but also major layoffs in the oil industry, buffeted by reduced demand as Americans hunker down at home to avoid exposure. That situation also is aggravated by a price war over crude raging between Saudi Arabia and Russia, two of the world’s largest producers. Motorists may not have anywhere to go, but getting there is becoming less expensive, with AAA Texas reporting Thursday that statewide averages for regular unleaded are the lowest since 2016.

Stations all over Greater Waco are posting prices between $1.70 and $1.80 per gallon for regular unleaded, according to GasBuddy.com.

Perryman said he continues to see light at the end of the tunnel.

“I do not think that the economy will enter an extended depression,” Perryman wrote in his email. “The basic structure of the economy was sound prior to the outbreak, and we are essentially dealing with fallout from a health crisis, which should be our primary focus.

“Assuming that through aggressive monetary policy, targeted fiscal stimulus and other measures we can keep the basic economic structure in place, the recovery should be relatively rapid once the virus risk has abated.”

Likewise, Kris Collins, senior vice president at the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce, said the local economy has strength to persevere.

“We have a really resilient economy and community,” Collins said. “When things get back to normal, we should bounce back quickly.”

She said in a recent interview the city’s industrial diversity should serve it well, with Greater Waco home to plants as diverse as the SpaceX rocket-testing facility in McGregor, the L3Harris Technologies aircraft modification plant at Texas State Technical College Airport, the Allergan plant that produces eye care and dermatological treatments and the Mars Chocolate North America facility.

The trio of poultry processing plants in Waco — Cargill, Sanderson Farms and Pilgrim’s Pride — all said Thursday they remain operational.

L3Harris, which employs almost 800 people, making it Waco’s largest industrial employer, also remains open, spokesman Lance Martin confirmed Thursday.

Meanwhile, Andrew Smith, who oversees economic development and industry recruitment efforts for McGregor, said in a phone interview SpaceX continues its rocket-testing operations in the city’s industrial district.

“The proof is in the sound,” Smith said, referencing the window-rattling rumble and blasts audible in North Waco and even China Spring.

He said he could not say if SpaceX has assigned any of its 500-person area workforce to home duty, and the company did not return messages.

The Texas Workforce Commission will release February jobless numbers Friday, and Amarillo-based economist Karr Ingham is scheduled to unveil his Greater Waco Economic Index that will include employment figures.

Last week, the workforce commission developed and approved a Shared Work program that provides an alternative to full layoffs. It allows employers to reduce workers’ hours rather than lay them off, and the commission will provide partial unemployment benefits to cover the lost wages.

To be eligible to submit a Shared Work plan, employers must reduce employees’ hours by at least 10%, but not more than 40%. The reduction must affect at least 10% of the workers in a unit, and employers may request multiple plans, according to a workforce commission information sheet.

Employers of all sizes are eligible, and both salaried and hourly workers may participate. The Shared Work plan must be an alternative to layoffs, and businesses should be able to estimate how many employees they would lay off if they did not participate in a shared work plan, the press release states.

Employers can submit plans through the Texas Workforce Commission website.


Photos: Today's top pics from the coronavirus outbreak

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