Tri-Cities still holds its own for jobs

The Tri-Cities continues to deal with the ongoing recession better than the state and the nation, relying on its traditional strengths in power production, food production and processing, the health care industry, higher education and Hanford to create jobs.

The Tri-Cities showed a gain in August of 2,400 nonfarm jobs over the year, said Dean Schau, regional labor economist. The number of nonfarm jobs grew to 97,800 in August.

That more than 2.5 percent growth rate over the year stands out because the U.S. and Washington lost more than 4 percent of nonfarm jobs in the same period, Schau said.

"We're not booming. We are just doing OK," he said, adding the Tri-Cities is not recession-proof.

The area lost 200 nonfarm jobs in August compared with July. Most of that was in local school districts, which downsized for the summer, Schau said. Also, he said the retail, administrative and support services, leisure and hospitality sectors showed declines.

Last month, 8,580 people were unemployed in Benton and Franklin counties, Schau said. Also, the rate of unemployment increased from 6.1 percent in July to 6.5 percent in August, while the number of workers in the area labor pool declined from 133,350 to 131,640 in the same period.

Statewide, Washington's unemployment rate increased to 9.2 percent in August, up from July's revised rate of 8.9 percent.

The state lost an estimated 8,000 nonagricultural jobs last month, a turnaround from a gain of 11,800 jobs in July, according to the state Employment Security Department.

Industries with the largest declines were professional and business services, which lost 2,500 jobs; retail trade, down 2,400; and education and health services, down 1,800.

Some areas did see growth, with government up 1,800 jobs; leisure and hospitality up 800; transportation, warehousing and utilities up by 700; and construction, which gained 200 jobs.

"It's too early to say the recession is over," department economist Dave Wallace said in a conference call with reporters. "What we hope to see is some sustained job growth before we can make any comment on that."

Wallace did say the small gain in construction jobs was the first increase in that sector since January 2008.

"That is a good sign that confidence may be returning to that industry," he said.

Last year at this time, Washington's unemployment rate was 5.4 percent. The state lost 126,100 jobs from August 2008 to August 2009, a 4.2 percent decrease. Nationally, employment declined by 4.3 percent over the past year.

Washington's unemployment rate is lower than the national rate, which was 9.7 percent for August.

At a meeting last week, officials with the state's Economic and Revenue Forecast Council said they expect the state's unemployment rate to peak at 9.8 percent in the first quarter of 2010, down from June's peak prediction of 10.5 percent.

The last time the state's unemployment rate was 9.2 percent was in June; before that, it was last at that rate in May 1984. The state's highest unemployment rate since the mid-1970s was in November 1982, when it hit 12.2 percent.

More than 319,000 people in Washington were unemployed and looking for work in August. Currently, 191,495 are collecting unemployment benefits. Unemployed workers can receive up to 79 weeks of benefits, but thousands in the state are starting to see those benefits run out.

"The recession may be coming to an end, but thousands of our unemployed workers will run out of unemployment benefits before the job market begins to recover," said Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee. "We need Congress to authorize another extension for unemployment benefits."

Sheryl Hutchison, spokeswoman for the Employment Security Department, said about 2,700 people exhausted their unemployment benefits between May and August, and an additional 6,600 will run out in September.

Legislation has been introduced in Congress, by Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., to provide an additional 13 weeks of unemployment benefits in states where unemployment has averaged at least 8.5 percent over the last three months.

Hutchinson said that if an extension is not granted, the state is expecting that by the end of December, a total of 19,000 people will have exhausted their benefits this year.

The highest unemployment rate in the state is 13.9 percent in Clark County in southwestern Washington. San Juan County has the state's lowest at 4.3 percent.