Tri-City jobless rate hits 9 percent

Ingrid Stegemoeller, Herald staff writerFebruary 25, 2009 

The Tri-City economy isn't immune to the nation's struggles, and it showed as the area's unemployment rate rose to 9 percent in January.

That was up from 7.2 percent in December and 6.5 percent a year ago, said Dean Schau, state regional labor economist.

"I was not anticipating it would spike so quickly here," he said Tuesday.

The construction industry appears to have taken the hardest hit, losing 600 to 700 jobs since August, Schau said. He said completion of the Coyote Ridge Corrections Center expansion in Connell compounded losses from slower housing and commercial construction.

Candice Bluechel, business services outreach manager at WorkSource Columbia Basin, said more people from the building industry are seeking unemployment insurance than from any other industry.

Her office is helping about 650 people a day, up from the typical 500 a day, she said.

"There are not enough jobs to go around," Bluechel said. "We have odds and ends (openings) in all industries ... (but) certainly not with the numbers we're used to seeing. Probably the only area we don't have a need for right now is the construction industry."

Although the unemployment rate increased, the Tri-City area did gain 2,100 nonfarm jobs since January 2008, Schau said, but also has lost 1,100 since December.

Statewide, 56,000 jobs were lost from January 2008 to January 2009, according to the state Employment Security Department.

That's a 1.9 percent decrease, slightly better than the national 2.9 percent decline. About 7,000 nonfarm jobs were lost statewide in January, according to the department.

Locally, Schau attributed the rising unemployment rate to a growing population, the possibility that those at retirement age are re-entering the work force as their savings accounts decline and a chilly January that meant less work for farm laborers.

"Every time we create 10 new jobs, we have 12 people coming for work," he said.

Businesses also are being extra careful.

"I think there's a piece of the business community that's just remaining cautious right now," Bluechel said. Some have asked to cancel posted openings, opting to wait a while before making new hires.

Employment at Hanford's vitrification plant at the end of 2007 was at 3,113 and peaked in August at 3,609, Schau said. That's since dropped to 3,279.

Those who've lost their jobs at Hanford or in the construction industry used to be able to find employment again quickly, he said, but that doesn't seem to be the case anymore.

Unemployment insurance claims in Benton and Franklin counties have jumped substantially in the past year.

In Benton County, the number of claims climbed more than 55 percent, from 2,300 in January 2008 to 3,575 in January 2009, Schau said.

Franklin County saw an increase of nearly 51 percent, from 1,496 claims last January to 2,257 last month.

The unemployment rate in Benton County was 8.2 percent, while Franklin County's rate in January was 11 percent, according to Employment Security.

Schau attributed the difference to the fact Benton County's economy is more diversified than Franklin County's, which is more dependent on agriculture.

Washington's unemployment rate grew to a seasonally adjusted 7.8 percent in January, up from 7.1 percent in December. That means the rate accounts for normal seasonal fluctuations. The unadjusted rate was 8.6 percent, according to Employment Security

The rate usually comes from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, but the data were delayed this month so the Employment Security Department calculated the number using a computer model that historically has closely matched the official number.

"If the financial sector isn't stabilized within the next six months, we could hit 12.5 percent" going into next year, said Mary Ayala, the department's chief economist.

An estimated 303,570 people in Washington were unemployed and looking for jobs in January, the largest number the state's ever seen.

The state's unemployment rate hasn't hit 7.8 percent since February 1987, according to the department.

Ayala said turnarounds in the durable goods and construction industries will be signposts of recovery.

She put stock in the national economic stimulus plan, saying the injection of money will help put people to work quickly.

The federal government estimates the recently passed American Recovery and Reinvestment Act will bring about 75,000 jobs to the state.

Unemployment rates, not seasonally adjusted, as reported in other metropolitan areas around the state were: Bellingham, 8 percent; Bremerton, 7.5 percent; Longview, 13.6 percent; Mt. Vernon-Anacortes, 9.9 percent; Olympia, 7.7 percent; Seattle-Bellevue-Everett, 7.1 percent; Spokane, 9.6 percent; Tacoma, 9.1 percent; Wenatchee, 9.3 percent; Yakima, 11.1 percent.

Other labor markets reported include: Aberdeen, 13.4 percent; Centralia, 13.1 percent; Ellensburg, 9.8 percent; Moses Lake, 12.3 percent; Oak Harbor, 8.2 percent; Port Angeles, 10.9 percent; Pullman, 5 percent; Shelton, 11.5 percent; Walla Walla, 8 percent.

Unemployment rates in other counties were: Adams, 12.2 percent; Asotin, 8.9 percent; Clark, 10.9 percent; Columbia, 11.7 percent; Ferry, 13.8 percent; Garfield, 7.8 percent; Jefferson, 9.3 percent; Klickitat, 12.5 percent; Lincoln, 9.4 percent; Okanogan, 12.2 percent; Pacific, 12 percent; Pend Oreille, 13.9 percent; San Juan, 7.9 percent; Skamania, 12.6 percent; Stevens, 14.1 percent; Wahkiakum, 12.5 percent.

w Ingrid Stegemoeller: 582-1537;; Business Beat blog at

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