(CN) — New claims for unemployment benefits fell below 1 million for the first time since March, the Labor Department said Thursday in its weekly report.
The 984,192 new unemployment insurance claims filed over the last week came as the country entered its sixth month of a pandemic that has infected 4.83 million Americans. Each day since March, an average of 1,082 people have died of Covid-19.
Accounting for “predictable seasonal patterns,”the federal agency adjusted the number of new claims to 1.1 million and calculated 11% of covered workers who meet age and work requirements are receiving benefits, about 15.8 million people.
After two years of struggle, unemployment during the Great Recession peaked at 10% in October 2009. During this time last year, 179,879 people applied for benefits as 3.7% of U.S. workers were unemployed.
Looking at the week of July 18, the country’s 16.6 million covered workers made up about half of the 32.1 million jobless Americans receiving unemployment benefits. The Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation programs covered 15.5 million gig workers and entrepreneurs who also lost work due to Covid-19.
With a quarter of its workforce receiving benefits, Nevada reported the highest unemployment rate in the country last week, followed by Puerto Rico and Hawaii, both above 20%.
States that rely heavily on hospitality and tourism have struggled to keep people employed through the pandemic. Meanwhile many rural and agricultural communities have experienced less drastic job loss but face their own unique challenges.
In April for example, Kentucky’s 4.4% unemployment ballooned to 16.2% then returned to 4.8% in June. Global sweet corn supplier Idaho went from 2.7% unemployment in February to 11.8% in April and back down to 5.6% in June.
The V-shaped recovery rates correlate with lower rates of Covid-19 spread through less dense populations. Idaho and Kentucky rank among the bottom 20 states for Covid-19 spread and between them have attributed 900 deaths to the disease.
“People in rural areas just interact with smaller groups periodically,” said John Winters, associate professor of economics at Iowa State University. In recent research, he and colleagues honed in the variable influencing unemployment among rural and urban populations.
Winters said rural communities that experienced lower Covid-19 infection rates are less vulnerable to job loss. Still the numbers can be deceiving, as many rural residents lost the urban work they commuted to.
“The rural areas and urban areas are quite interdependent partially through commuting and partially just through rural areas often provide goods and services used in urban areas,” Winters said.
Many agricultural communities have nevertheless shown resilience.
“Through all this pandemic, we worked hard every day,” explained Todd Hays, vice president of the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation and a fifth-generation farmer from Monroe City. Hays grows corn and soybean and raises about 600 swine each year.
Over the pandemic, Missouri saw unemployment rise from 3.5% to 10.2% in April before swinging down to 7.9% in June.
Hays mainly employs family but worries about the jobs further down the supply chain in the slaughterhouses and distribution centers that buy his products.
“I’m worried if we have another reoccurrence where they try to have another huge shutdown, and a lot of states have people stay home again,” Hays said. “Our supply system is just not designed to handle things that way.”
In addition to supply-chain strains, factor in the drought covering the southwest corner of the country and uncertain trade deals with China, and it’s no wonder that many family-owned farms are growing abundant worries.
“Frankly, everybody’s hurting in this, but especially those farmers and ranchers that are self-employed and aren’t part of a larger entity such as a Smithfield or a large multinational company,” said Nick Levendofsky, director of external affairs at Rocky Mountain Farmers Union in Denver.
Earlier this summer while conducting union work remotely, Levendofsky said he was able to return to his parent’s farm in Kansas so he could help with the cattle as well as their corn, soybean and alfalfa crops.
Whether more Americans follow this trend and migrate outside of city limits depends on businesses supporting flexible work from home options and internet access.
“Broadband, wireless internet all of that, that’s no longer a luxury anymore,” Levendofsky added. “As more and more people are working and learning from home, you have to be able to provide that as part of equitable infrastructure.”
In the meantime, summer is an important season for farmers’ markets, and the days are only getting shorter.
Under a sunny yellow tent at the Cherry Creek Shopping Center Colorado Fresh Market in Denver, Riley Valentine sold Bjorn’s honey on a hot August day.
“I keep my hands clean and wear a mask, so I feel pretty safe out here,” Valentine said. Aside from an airport kiosk, Boulder-based business Bjorn’s Colorado Honey only sells products during summer farmers’ markets.
“People might not know how important it is to support local businesses right now, but customers really are what keeps us on our feet,” Valentine said. “Especially for this business because we only work during the summer, customers keep us going.”