Lots of bosses in lots of offices had to lay off workers when the COVID-19 pandemic first hit, but for Terry Howell things got personal.
Howell owns First Class Parties and Events in Anniston, renting out party supplies and hosting events at a location on McClellan Boulevard. Alabama's April stay-at-home order — prohibiting gatherings of 10 people or more — banned the very product Howell sells. So Howell had to lay off his only employee: his own brother-in-law, Tommy Harrelson.
“That was a first,” he said. “We're a family business.”
Things are a little different now. With the state reopened, Howell is back in business working a few private parties here and there, but nothing like the schedule he worked last year. He rehired Harrelson in June.
Multiply that story by about 42,000 times and you see some of what happened in the state in June, according to unemployment numbers released by the Alabama Department of Labor on Friday morning.
The June numbers show Alabama's unemployment rate at 7.5 percent, down from 9.6 percent in May. Calhoun County unemployment dropped from 11.6 percent in May to 9.4 percent in June.
They're good numbers, at least in the context of bad times. In June of 2019, unemployment was at only 2.9 percent. But since the pandemic, Americans have a new definition of progress: anything that gets us closer to where we were before the coronavirus crash.
“The numbers look very good,” said Ahmad Ijaz, a researcher for the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama. “They have looked good for a couple of months.”
By the state's count, the number of people in Alabama who have jobs grew by 42,000 in June. Ijaz said that comes on top of similar numbers for May, meaning the state is making some progress in regaining the roughly 200,000 jobs lost to the virus.
“We're pretty much at the halfway mark,” Ijaz said.
The leisure and hospitality sector, which includes bars and restaurants as well as event companies like Howell's, led the way in the recovery, picking up about 16,000 jobs. Manufacturing also shows signs of a comeback, with the auto industry in particular adding around 10,000 jobs in June.
Calhoun County's job gains echoed that pattern, with 1,300 jobs added in June, 500 of them in leisure and hospitality.
But for every worker who got a job back in June, three more still wait, the numbers show. In Calhoun County, the total number of people working is down by 4,100 compared to last June.
The pain of the layoffs has been eased a little by stimulus checks and a federally subsidized $600 add-on to the standard state unemployment check. That subsidy ends in the last week of July, and some observers say it could pose problems now that state government bans on evictions have ended. That could lead to a wave of evictions in September, advocates for the poor have said, if the job market doesn't bounce back.
Ijaz is thinking about September, too. That's when he expects the jobs recovery to lose some momentum. Businesses that closed during the pandemic clearly won't be bringing their jobs back, he said. Other businesses may trim back hiring as they realize they can operate with smaller staffs. Ijaz said he expects unemployment to bottom out at 5 or 6 percent by fall.
Those businesses may be reluctant to expand until the pandemic plays itself out.
“Most businesses are not yet certain how sustainable this recovery is," he said.
There are signs that layoffs are still going on, though at nowhere near the rate seen in March and April.
“People are returning to work as the economy further reopens, but we are beginning to see slight rises in the number of initial unemployment claims filed each week,” Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington was quoted as saying in a press release Friday morning.
For some, normalcy can't come soon enough, if it's going to come back at all. Howell's event business missed a normally busy month for school-based events while schools were closed in May. The private parties he's hosting now aren't as big as the church events and weddings his business covered in the past.
“I don't like the new normal," he said. "I want to go back to the old normal.”