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

A car drives down an otherwise empty Las Vegas Strip amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 8.
Bridget Bennett
AFP via Getty Images
A car drives down an otherwise empty Las Vegas Strip amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 8.

Amid record-breaking unemployment numbers, Nevada stands out. The jobs crisis hit the state early and dug in deep. Unemployment there has soared to more than 28% — the highest in the nation and the highest for any state since 1976, when the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics began tracking this data.

The accommodation and food service industry has been hit the hardest, says David Schmidt, chief economist for the Nevada Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation, with a nearly 41% year-on-year loss of jobs at hotels, casinos and restaurants and other tourism-related businesses.

Here are excerpts from the interview:

It's not just Vegas and Reno that are hit hard. ... A community called Fernley in northwest Nevada — about 57,000 people in total and 20% unemployment. This sounds as though it's hitting the state hard all around. Is that right?

Oh, certainly. We had a 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.

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

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 nonessential 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.

Your agency handles all of these unemployment claims pouring in. What has been your biggest challenge in this crisis?

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.

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.

Stay-at-home orders in Nevada are being lifted slowly. ... 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?

I tend to lean optimistic. Thirty percent unemployment is comparable to what we saw in the Great Depression. 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 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.

Listen to the full interview at the audio link above.

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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.