Statewide unemployment soared to 7.9 percent in December up 0.9 points in a month while the pace of job cuts picked up more steam with Nashville-based Bridgestone Americas saying it would slash hundreds of additional jobs at its La Vergne tire plant on Thursday.
The dual announcements were fresh evidence that the local economy could get worse before it improves.
"It's likely we're going to see a few more months of job losses of this magnitude or perhaps even higher," said David Penn, an economist at Middle Tennessee State University. "Anything dealing with producing or selling goods has been hammered."
Tennessee's unemployment rate in December is higher than the national rate of 7.2 percent for the month.
Bridgestone Americas Tire Operations said a new round of layoffs on top of 158 cuts made last month would affect 644 more workers in La Vergne as Bridgestone permanently ends production of tires for cars, pickups and SUVs at the plant there.
Some 259 people who make tires for commercial trucks and buses are included in the job loss totals, but they could be called back if business improves later, the company said. "We have to try to adjust," said Dan MacDonald, a Bridgestone spokesman.
The plant will retain about 700 employees on the side of the house that makes truck tires. Bridgestone has owned the La Vergne plant since 1982 and it's the company's oldest passenger tire facility.
"The mood in the plant is very somber. We all read the newspapers; we all see what's happening with the economy," plant manager John McLaughlin said.
"Most people are wondering how far down the seniority list the cuts are going to go. People are concerned about having a job," said Garry Manning, president of the United Steel Workers Local, which represents many Bridgestone employees.Job losses across board
Statewide, the manufacturing sector has lost a net of 20,100 jobs in the past year. Losses also have been felt in trade, transportation and utilities, with 17,300 jobs lost in the past year; and in professional and business services, where 15,000 jobs were shed.
On the bright side, 6,300 jobs have been added in education and health services, while employment in local governments rose by 1,500 jobs year-over-year, the state labor department said.
But that data was of little comfort to city officials and workers in La Vergne as they deal with the latest Bridgestone cuts.
"People don't realize how these jobs (impact La Vergne)," Mayor Ronnie Erwin said. "It is really going to affect our tax dollars. My heart goes out to the employees. It hits me to the bone."
Rising unemployment also has brought more people to career centers across Middle Tennessee as they look for new work.
The Tennessee Career Center location off Rosa Parks Boulevard is averaging 225 to 250 people daily during this week. The Murfreesboro office had about 125 visitors on Wednesday, said Jeff Hentschel, a spokesman with the state Department of Labor and Workforce Development.
Job searches are bearing little fruit, though, as many companies trim back on hiring. "The labor market remains a disaster area," warned Ian Shepherdson, chief U.S. economist at High Frequency Economics.
Nationally, first-time applications for unemployment benefits jumped last week by 62,000 to 589,000, the U.S. Labor Department reported Thursday. That was much more than the 540,000 tally economists had expected.
The number of unemployed people continuing to draw jobless benefits soared by 97,000 to 4.6 million, up from 2.7 million people who were receiving such aid a year ago.Others cut jobs, too
Bridgestone joined a host of other companies in cutting jobs. This week, Clear Channel Communications said it had eliminated about 1,850 positions across its corporate offices, outdoor advertising and radio operations, representing 9 percent of its work force.
The owner of five radio stations in Nashville isn't breaking down numbers by geography or business functions, said Lisa Dollinger, a spokeswoman.
The latest downsizing at Bridgestone's La Vergne plant will occur from mid-March to the end of June, said McLaughlin, the plant manager.
Before layoffs and other job restructuring began last month, the La Vergne plant employed 1,530.
Under the union contract, most employees who could be called back to work in the future will receive some money to supplement their unemployment benefits, MacDonald said.
Penn, the MTSU economist, said the layoffs could be felt beyond Rutherford County because some plant employees live in surrounding counties, including Davidson and Wilson.
"Those jobs are good-paying jobs, and it's going to take some time to replace them," Penn said.
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