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Drop In Wisconsin Unemployment Rate Called 'Nice Surprise'

Chuck Quirmbach
New Berlin strip mall businesses display "open" signs.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate dropped from 13.6% in April to 12% in May, a “nice surprise” that reflects just the very beginning of the state's reopening after the Wisconsin Supreme Court struck down the governor's stay-at-home order.

Gov. Tony Evers' order, which the court struck down on May 13, had kept most nonessential businesses closed. The unemployment survey was conducted May 11-15, meaning only those businesses that reopened immediately after the order ended were captured in the data.

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That's a good sign for even more improvement in June, when the survey, which was conducted last week, will be a full month after the “safer at home” order ended, said the state's chief economist Dennis Winters.

“It’s a nice surprise," Winters said of the May numbers. "I hope it continues to take this path going forward and we recover as quickly as possible. ... We’ve been pleasantly surprised by the uptick we’ve seen.”

Wisconsin's unemployment rate, which was reported Thursday by the state Department of Workforce Development, is below the national rate for May of 13.3%. Wisconsin added 72,100 private-sector jobs in May. There were 338,100 fewer private-sector jobs last month than there were in May 2019, when the unemployment rate was 3.3%.

While the downturn is still severe and serious, “we are making some progress,” Winters said.

Winters attributed Wisconsin's outpacing of the national rate to the state's diverse economy, both in terms of its industries and geographic distribution. While the tourism, hospitality and retail sectors have been hardest hit by the pandemic, the manufacturing and construction industries have not, helping to lighten the hit, he said.

“May’s job numbers show a strong increase in jobs, employment, and an unemployment rate that is more than a full percentage point lower than the national rate,” said Caleb Frostman, secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development.

Wisconsin's unemployment rate was initially reported as 14.1% for April, but it was revised down to 13.6%. The rates the past two months have been the highest since the Great Depression, when unemployment was around 25%. It hit a high of about 10% during the Great Recession.

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Republicans have also been critical about how quickly the state has been processing the avalanche of unemployment claims, saying it's taking too long. Through Monday, the department reported that 73% of claims submitted had been paid, 12% were denied and 15% were in process. The average time to receive payment was 19 days.

As of Thursday, 719 deaths from COVID-19 and nearly 23,900 confirmed cases had been reported to the state Department of Health Services. Of those who contracted the virus, 76% had recovered and 3% died, the health department said. Nearly 4% of test results reported Thursday were positive, the largest single-day increase in a week.

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