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Where Hurricane Florence May Show Up in the September Jobs Report

By Eric Morath

Hurricane Florence appears unlikely to knock the labor market off course.

While the storm caused flooding in the Carolinas last month, the hurricane’s effects may not be obvious in the most closely watched figures in the September jobs report—the unemployment rate and payroll change—to be released Friday by the Labor Department.

That’s due to a combination of the storm’s timing and its effects being felt by a relatively small slice of the U.S. economy. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal expect the unemployment rate to tick down to 3.8% in September and project U.S. employers added 180,000 jobs to payrolls.

Hurricane Florence made landfall on the morning of Friday, Sept. 14, in North Carolina. It caused significant damage in cities such as Wilmington and New Bern, N.C., but the impact was much more modest in the region’s population centers, including Charlotte, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.

“I don’t think the storm will show up much in national data,” said economist Erica Groshen, the former commissioner of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, which produces the monthly jobs report. “The area affected is really not a highly populated area. It will be more apparent in local and state numbers.”

The coastal communities in North and South Carolina are not the economic engines of the national economy in the same way as Houston or New York, which have been struck by major storms in recent years. There are more people working in flood zones in Harris County, Texas, where Houston is located, than in flood zones in all of North Carolina, according to the Labor Department.

An early indicator could be weekly jobless claims, a proxy for layoffs. In the week ended Sept. 22, the first full week in which workers affected by Florence could file for claims, the national figure moved up by 12,000 from the prior week. It was still one of the lowest weekly readings in the past 50 years. That suggests job losses due to the storm were small relative to the 150 million Americans on U.S. payrolls.

And while some workers likely did lose jobs—or weren’t hired—due to the storm, others found employment.

Anthony Kulton, of Massillon, Ohio, was hired last month as a temp worker to help process storm-related claims for an insurance company. The job only lasted nine days because the volume of claims was less than expected, but he earned about $200 a day—more than he typically makes as an Uber driver. Mr. Kulton isn’t worried about finding another opportunity.

“Jobs are really plentiful right now,” he said.

Larry Feinstein, chief executive of Hire Dynamics, a staffing firm with 23 branches in the Carolinas, said some of his clients closed or operated with skeleton staffs during the week the storm struck, mostly because schools in much of the state closed. He said he wasn’t aware of any long-term closures and said some firms made up for lost production with mandatory overtime the following weekend.

The timing of the storm also means it’s less likely those affected would be reported as unemployed. The survey that determines the unemployment rate asks households about employment during the week including the 12th of the month. So if workers reported on Monday the week the storm struck, they would be counted as employed. And those who were told not to come to work due to the storm—but not laid off—also don’t count as unemployed.

Laid-off workers could be counted as unemployed in the October survey, but that would mean workers would be out of a job for a month. With the unemployment rate near the lowest level in 18 years, laid-off workers are likely to quickly find new gigs.

The Labor Department will release data Friday on how many employees worked fewer hours due to bad weather. Those numbers could be elevated, but won’t affect top-line unemployment and payrolls figures.

This article originally appeared in The Wall Street Journal.

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