A reduction in Hanford layoffs thanks to a better-than-expected federal budget is lending a bit of optimism to the Tri-Cities' job market.
The Tri-Cities did see a seasonal increase in unemployment during December as farm work, food processing and construction slowed down for the year.
But the total number of nonfarm jobs climbed by 3.3 percent, to 101,200, when compared with December 2012, according to data released Tuesday by the Employment Security Department. Farm employment was also up over last year.
"Overall, our economy is looking much better," said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist for Benton and Franklin counties.
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Total Tri-Cities employment grew by about 1 percent, to 116,250, in December when compared with the same month in 2012.
The Tri-Cities' unemployment rate rose in December to 8.8 percent, compared with the 7.9 percent rate the area experienced in November. Franklin County's unemployment rate hit double digits in December, at 11 percent, while Benton County's was 7.9 percent.
That means about 11,150 people were out of work and actively searching for a new job, about 1,300 fewer people than a year ago.
The Tri-Cities remained above the state's average unemployment rate of 6.5 percent.
While December was one of the higher months for unemployment in the Tri-Cities last year, it was a definite improvement over the 9.9 percent and 9.7 percent unemployment rates the Tri-Cities saw during the same month in 2011 and 2012.
Nationwide, employment experts report unemployment numbers are declining because job seekers are becoming discouraged and no longer looking for work.
But the Tri-Cities hasn't seen that trend for the last several months, although there were discouraged workers who accounted for some drops in unemployment in 2012 and the beginning of last year, Suljic said.
The Tri-Cities has seen the labor force grow along with employment, showing that more people are looking and finding work, she said.
And having fewer Hanford job losses should help inspire job growth in other industries, Suljic said.
Up to 289 layoffs by Hanford contractors were expected in January, but only 12 employees were laid off last week after Congress approved a fiscal 2014 budget that increased spending at Hanford to about $2.2 billion, or $186 million more than was available in fiscal 2013.
In December, 161 workers from Hanford contractors were approved for voluntary layoffs and were laid off.
The Tri-Cities has seen healthy growth in financial activities (100 more jobs over the year) and education and health services (300 more jobs), Suljic said.
Employment in the medical field has continued to climb as health care agencies have opened new locations in the Tri-Cities to keep up with the demand of a growing population, Suljic said.
The expansion of local school districts and additional higher education hiring has helped the Tri-Cities see a year-over-year addition of 800 state and local government jobs, Suljic said.
The Tri-Cities has continued to see more retail trade jobs during the last two years as consumer confidence and spending has grown, Suljic said. Retail had 300 more jobs in December compared with the same month in 2012.
Food services has also seen an increase of 300 jobs, according to the data.
Construction remained stable, with no change from December 2012, according to the data. Manufacturing lost about 200 jobs compared to the same month last year. Suljic said food manufacturing employment has been volatile this year.
Meanwhile, agriculture employment in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties dipped to about 12,730 jobs in December. While that was down by about 3,600 jobs from November, it remained about 18 percent higher than December 2012, according to the monthly agricultural employment and wage report.
At WorkSource Columbia Basin, traffic has increased, with about 800 job seekers coming into the Kennewick office each week for help on their job hunts, said Joe Perez, WorkSource Columbia Basin administrator.
WorkSource Columbia Basin has more than 980 job listings on its website, Perez said. Available jobs cover a spectrum of industries, wages and experience.
The Washington State Patrol will hold a hiring event for troopers at WorkSource Columbia Basin's Kennewick office from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. on Feb. 7.
Perez encourages job seekers to take advantage of WorkSource's free workshops, which include help with resumes, cover letters, interviewing and packaging skills for employers, he said. The calendar is available at: www.wa.gov/esd/EventCalendars/columbia-basin.htm.
December unemployment rates for other area counties were Adams, 10.2 percent; Columbia, 9.7 percent; Grant, 10.5 percent; Walla Walla, 6.6 percent; and Yakima, 10.6 percent.