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'The Sheer Volume' Is Hard To Capture: Unemployment In Nevada Soars To Historic High


The pandemic continues to gouge out giant chunks of the job market. Today we got the latest numbers and learned nearly 41 million people have filed for unemployment since the coronavirus forced an economic shutdown, more than two million last week alone. In Nevada, the jobs crisis hit early and dug in deep. Unemployment there has soared to more than 28% - highest in the nation, highest for any state ever since they started keeping data on this. David Schmidt is chief economist for the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. He's on the line with us now from Nevada's capital, Carson City. David Schmidt, welcome.


KELLY: So it's hard to wrap your brain around more than a quarter of your state's workforce being out of work. I'm wondering; what kind of jobs are these? Nevada and its casinos, of course, are known for being big tourist destinations. Are a lot of these job losses in that sector?

SCHMIDT: That's definitely the case. We've seen 41%, nearly, of the jobs in our accommodation and food service industry decline from last year to this year. That's been the hardest-hit sector in our state.

KELLY: That's hotels. That's restaurants. That's the casinos. That's all of the travel industry serving them - all of it.

SCHMIDT: Basically everything except the arts, entertainment and recreation industry, which is a smaller subset that's related. But it's - accommodation and food service, including the casino hotels, has been the hardest-hit sector.

KELLY: Although I was interested when I was actually looking over the data just now. It's not just Vegas and Reno that are hit hard. I was looking at the data for a community called Fernley in northwest Nevada - about 57,000 people in total and 20% unemployment there. I mean, this sounds as though it's hitting the state hard all around. Is that right?

SCHMIDT: Oh, certainly. We had nearly 10% unemployment in all of our metropolitan and micropolitan areas. Fernley is near to Reno, and it has definitely not been spared. Our lowest unemployment is 9.6% in Winnemucca, which is in north-central Nevada.

KELLY: Are there specific challenges to getting help to more rural parts of the state?

SCHMIDT: Not necessarily challenges getting help out there. Really, they've been spared the worst of this. Las Vegas is our hardest-hit area whereas the mining industry wasn't as affected by the closure of non-essential businesses. And so we've seen less of an impact out in our rural areas, where mining is a much bigger piece of the economy than I think many people realize.

KELLY: Well, your agency handles all of these unemployment claims pouring in. What has been your biggest challenge in this crisis?

SCHMIDT: Definitely the volume. We saw a surge in unemployment claims unlike anything that anyone could have ever expected. We had been averaging approximately 10,000 new initial claims every month heading into this, and in the first week of the pandemic we had over 90,000 claims. We saw nine months worth of activity in a single week, and then we had eight months worth of activity in the week after that and seven months the week after that. The sheer volume, I think, is something that is really hard to capture.

KELLY: Well, let's look ahead. Stay-at-home orders in Nevada are being lifted slowly. I was looking, and it looks like many casinos in the Las Vegas area say they will reopen on June 4, which is the earliest day they could do so. How hopeful are you about the impact on the state's unemployment numbers?

SCHMIDT: I tend to lean optimistic. I mean, 30% unemployment is comparable to what we saw in the Great Depression. And, you know, that's a scary sort of thing to say, but I think it's also important to recognize that in the Great Depression, we didn't have the programs that we have today like Social Security, like unemployment insurance, like SNAP and TANF and Medicaid to help support people. And because we have those programs in place to help keep people engaged with the labor market, help keep people provided with the things that they need for daily living, I think you can see a much quicker recovery than you saw in the Great Depression, where it lasted for decades.

KELLY: David Schmidt, thank you.

SCHMIDT: Thank you very much.

KELLY: He is the chief economist for Nevada's Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Casey Morell (he/him) is an associate producer/director of All Things Considered.