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(Karen Brooks Harper/Austonia)

Software engineer and Austin resident Steve Donie was laid off from his midsized startup in April, one of 123,900 people in the area who lost his job that month.


Two months later, he's still unemployed and still collecting benefits, searching for a job that remotely matches his 25 years of experience—at something close to his previous salary.

New unemployment claims in Travis County were down nearly 75%—to 3,041—in the first week of June compared to late March, after the coronavirus pandemic shut down businesses and caused some 14,585 people to file for unemployment in a single week.

The trend tracks with national claims, which are down by nearly 70% in new applications for unemployment benefits. The week that Donie was laid off, he and about 10,480 other people filed for unemployment.

Those numbers mean that job losses for the Austin area have slowed, but what they don't reflect is the number of people still looking for work.

"I've never been unemployed for this long," Donie, 53, said.

National numbers show an increase in jobs in May, a trend that is likely to be mirrored in Texas, one of the first states to reopen that month—and among the most aggressive to do so.

The May unemployment rates for Texas will be released Friday.

Those who work with job seekers and, mostly these days, the suddenly unemployed, say they have seen a dip in the number of people asking them for help to find work.

"We went into overdrive in answering calls pretty much around the clock when COVID hit back in March, and we were seeing between 2,000 and 2,500 calls a day at the height of the layoffs," said Tamara Atkinson, CEO of Workforce Solutions Capital Area, which provides job training and other services to local residents.

Now, she said, it's 500 to 600 a day. Before the coronavirus lead to the lockdown in mid-March, Atkinson said, the agency was averaging 150 calls per week. That was when 59 straight months of job growth had unemployment rates in Austin hovering mostly under 3%.

In April, Austin's jobless rate shot up to over 12%—tracking with state trends.

Employees at Fertile Ground are back to work. (Fertile Ground)

Employees at Fertile Ground are back to work.

Those numbers will include the employees at Fertile Ground, a local landscape company co-owned by Donie's wife, Julie Donie, who had to lay off all but one worker (including herself) in March but rehired nearly all of them in May.

Only their maintenance and gardening services were considered essential. One full-timer was allowed to plant some vegetable gardens while they waited for permission to reopen. It was impossible to find personal protective gear for her employees at the time, she said.

"Then when construction work became essential, and all our competitors were still working," she said, "our clients were like, 'Hey, when are you coming back?'"

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