Jobless rate in Tri-Cities dips during September

By Kristi Pihl, Tri-City HeraldOctober 24, 2012 

Retail jobs have seen continued growth in the Tri-Cities, and more gains are expected as local retailers prepare for the holidays by adding seasonal employees.

At the same time, Tri-Cities saw an overall drop in unemployment during September as a result of local farming.

But the area's 8 percent unemployment rate remained above what it was a year ago, according to data released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

The Tri-Cities owes its 1,270 employment gain in September to job growth in agriculture, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist. That helped increase overall employment for September, despite decreases in nonfarm employment.

The Tri-Cities unemployment rate was slightly higher than the state's rate of 7.7 percent. Franklin County's rate was 7.8 percent, with Benton County's at 8.1 percent.

Farm labor remained a bright spot, with a year-over-year increase of about 9 percent in September.

There were about 19,580 workers employed in the agricultural industry in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties during September, a growth of 1,640 workers compared with the same month last year, according to the September Agricultural Labor Employment and Wages report.

Apple and potato harvest continues in Benton and Franklin counties, with both expected to conclude in November.

Suljic said good weather and good crop volume from asparagus to cherries and apples all contributed to the job growth.

The total number of Tri-Citians employed in September was 124,060, a nearly 2 percent drop in overall employment when compared to last year.

There were about 10,760 people out of work and actively seeking a new job in September -- a drop of 840 people from August -- but nearly 16 percent more than the same month last year.

Nonfarm jobs showed a decline of about 4,900 to 98,500 when compared with September 2011.

Few nonfarm industries saw job gains when compared to last year. Retail trade was up by about 200 workers, while leisure and hospitality increased by 300.

Suljic said those two industries still see positive growth.

The job numbers continued to reflect the employment loss from Hanford layoffs almost a year ago and continued layoffs by Hanford contractors this year. Professional and business services -- where most Hanford jobs are categorized -- was down by 400 jobs from August. It showed a job loss of 3,800 workers compared to September 2011.

Suljic said she expects to see the effect of Hanford job losses to continue. About 170 workers laid off toward the end of September and 120 workers who will be laid off at of the end of October are not reflected in the latest numbers.

Slowing construction also was reflected in September's numbers. Suljic said construction saw a large hike in employment during 2009 and 2010, but has seen single-family homes and multi-family projects slow since then. Construction is down by about 600 jobs compared to September 2011.

At WorkSource Columbia Basin, area manager Michelle Mann said hiring events for agriculture and food processing have ended for now and they are just wrapping up hiring for Energy Northwest's outage.

An average of 450 to 500 people a day continue to coming into WorkSource for help with their job search, she said. That's about normal for this time of year.

Mann said retailers appear to be doing the same amount of holiday hiring as they did last year.

Patricia Bardin, Columbia Center mall director of marketing and business development, said Columbia Center retailers are looking for seasonal workers for this holiday season.

"Bath & Body Works, I know, will be hiring 35 holiday employees -- less than last year's 50 -- seeing as they want to give each holiday staff member they bring on board this holiday more hours," she said.

Some job openings for mall businesses can be found at ShopColumbiaCenter.com. Bardin said it's one of the most-visited pages on the mall website.

Sears employees at Columbia Center mall already are set for the holiday.

"Rather than hiring many seasonal workers, we give our team special tools to handle holiday traffic," said store manager Aaron Klennert. But he said they always welcome "high-energy" candidates.

Macy's also is hiring for the holidays, planning to add about 1,600 positions at its stores in Washington, said Macy's spokeswoman Kelley Tarzian. That's part of a nationwide effort to hire about 80,000 seasonal employees. To apply, people should go to macysJOBS.com. The exact number being hired for Macy's at Columbia Center was not available.

Overall, Mann said, job listings with WorkSource Columbia Basin have remained steady, with a good variety.

Among those job listings are a number of positions for Lourdes Health Network in Pasco. Melanie Johnston, spokeswoman for Lourdes Health Network, said most of the job openings are in existing positions in Lourdes' work force of about 850 people. But she said Lourdes does plan to add some new positions to their patients accounts since they will no longer be outsourcing some patient billing.

There were some job gains in education, but Suljic said that is because employees who were off the payroll during the summer have returned to work.

Unemployment for area counties was: Adams County, 7 percent; Columbia County, 9.3 percent; Grant County, 7.7 percent; Walla Walla County, 6.4 percent and Yakima County, 8.2 percent.

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512; kpihl@tricityherald.com

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