As economic data lags, Texas reports 4.7% jobless rate for March

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Cars lined up Wednesday at LBJ Early College High School in Austin to receive food and hygiene products from the Central Texas Food Bank. Miguel Gutierrez Jr./The Texas Tribune

Far more Texans are out of work than the state’s latest 4.7% unemployment rate indicates because the government data released Friday predates the widespread business closures and layoffs that escalated as the coronavirus crisis worsened. Analysts said the actual rate of jobless Texans is likely greater than 10%, which could be a record high for the state.

More than 22 million Americans have already lost their jobs or had their incomes slashed over the last four weeks, including more than 1 million people in Texas, and even those numbers don’t show the full picture of the economic toll.

“It’s always a backward-looking indicator,” Cullum Clark, director of the George W. Bush Institute’s Economic Growth Initiative at Southern Methodist University, told The Texas Tribune. “When layoffs are skyrocketing every single day, the number that comes out will not capture how bad things are today.”

The state’s unemployment rate, released Friday by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, is the share of Texans in the labor force who are out of work. The 4.7% rate is an increase from February's 3.5% unemployment rate for the state. The rate was also 3.5% in March 2019. The unemployment rate is different than the raw number of people filing for unemployment insurance because some of those filers are still employed but have been furloughed or had their hours cut.

The number of people filing for unemployment insurance with the Texas Workforce Commission gives a more up-to-date glimpse into the economic devastation in Texas because those figures use data more recent than the unemployment rate released Friday.

But straining matters more is the Texas Workforce Commission’s significant understaffing. Millions of calls and online queries have gone unanswered over the last month as the coronavirus pandemic has spread, the agency said.

Never before have this many Texans been jobless, but the pandemic has presented simultaneous public health and economic crises that in some ways have hit the economy in Texas harder than elsewhere. The general shock of business closings has been felt here and across the country, but the sudden plunge in global oil demand has already overwhelmed the energy industry. More devastation is expected in that sector.