Almost every storefront at the Valley Mall sits shuttered as a result of closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Between March 7 and March 21, the number of residents filing jobless claims in the area shot up by as much as 4,800%, according to the most recent data available from the Virginia Employment Commission.

Over the week ending March 14, five jobless claims had been filed from Rockingham County and a dozen in Harrisonburg. By March 21, 245 Rockingham County residents and 340 Harrisonburg residents had filed jobless claims with the VEC.

“Those certainly tell the story,” said Sharon Johnson, the CEO of the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board.

Over the same weeks, Page County saw a jump from seven claims to 80, Augusta County from 19 to 196 and Shenandoah County from 11 to 168.

“We are seeing now, of course, the Virginia Employment Commission getting hit so hard with all these individuals getting furloughed and laid off and not knowing how long it’s going to last,” Johnson said.

And experts expect the number to continue to climb.

“There’s no doubt that we’ll see employment fall in March and unemployment rise,” said Sonya Waddell, Richmond Federal Reserve Bank economist and vice president.

However, though the unemployment rate will rise, it may not exactly match the jobless claims, she said, due to fraudulent claims, denials and other situations.

Across the state, in the week ending on March 14, 2,700 Virginians claimed joblessness, said Joe Mengedoth, an economist with the Richmond Fed citing Virginia Employment Commission data.

The following week, the Virginia Employment Commission received 46,722 claims, he said — a more than 17-fold increase.

“Prior to that spike, the average number of weekly claims was at or below historic levels of the state,” Mengedoth said.

Also compared to the same week in 2019, the number of jobless claims was 17 times higher, according to Waddell.

“This increase in unemployment claims is dramatic, to say the least,” she said.

Statewide, unemployment in February was at its lowest, 2.6%, since March 2001, Mengedoth said.

The nation saw the highest number of people file jobless claims last week, a historic 3.3 million, according to Department of Labor data released Thursday.

In Virginia, the last joblessness spike close to last week’s was the week ending Dec. 23, 1989, when 25,133 claims were filed, according to Mengedoth.

The sudden halt to the economy, locally, statewide and nationally, can be seen compared to the “positive” growth figures seen in February, he said.

Over the second month of 2020, Virginia employers added 11,000 jobs, with the largest segment in the now-suffering leisure and hospitality sector, where 3,400 new positions were created. The vast majority, of those, 2,700, were in accommodation and food service, according to Mengedoth.

“Leisure and hospitality is the epicenter of unemployment in Virginia,” Waddell said.

Johnson said Gov. Ralph Northam gave $1.5 million for rapid response funding to help small business avoid layoffs and the Shenandoah Valley Workforce Development Board was awarded $93,000.

She said it would be cut into $5,000 amounts for businesses that are considered essential to avoid layoffs.

The local board’s program was announced on Thursday at 11:40 a.m., Johnson said, and by 2:30, they had already received 25 applications.

“Businesses are out there and they are doing everything they can,” she said.

A variety of other area groups, including the Harrisonburg-Rockingham Chamber of Commerce, Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance, Shenandoah Valley Partnership and local governments have worked to make money available to local businesses.

A local representative of the Virginia Employment Commission could not be reached Friday.

Contact Ian Munro at 574-6278 or imunro@dnronline.com. Follow Ian on Twitter @iamIanMunro

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