Job gains visible in Tri-Cities

Tri-City unemployment is on the decline again, but the area still has about 1,760 more residents who are unemployed and actively job hunting than it did a year ago.

Unemployment dipped slightly from8.8 percent to 8.4 percent in June, but still remained a full percentage point above last June's unemployment rate, according to data released by the state Employment Security Department on Tuesday.

The Tri-Cities saw job gains in many nonfarm industries between May and June, including 200 jobs added to professional and business services, the category where most Hanford jobs are reflected. But that category is down about 2,200 jobs compared to June 2011, before about 2,000 Hanford workers lost their jobs.

Nonfarm industries gained 900 jobs between May and June, reaching 102,700 jobs, but still had a 1,400-job gap between this June and June 2011.

The year-over-year decline in nonfarm jobs isn't likely to go away soon. Many Hanford layoffs weren't reflected in employment statistics until the October 2011 numbers.

And the layoffs aren't over yet.

CH2M Hill Plateau Remediation Co., the Hanford contractor responsible for central Hanford environmental cleanup, started a round of layoffs in June, with 58 workers let go and plans to lay off up to 340 more workers in September.

Bechtel National, which is building the Hanford vitrification plant, announced in April that it would cut 200 to 300 nonconstruction jobs between spring and the end of the year.

However, Washington Closure Hanford will cut fewer jobs in the fiscal year that ends in September than previously announced. It was prepared to cut 210 positions this fiscal year as work ramped down toward the completion of cleanup up along the Columbia River and the end of its federal contract in 2015. But it has reduced that estimate to about 110 jobs cut after additional contamination has been found as cleanup has progressed.

In other sectors, retail trade was up about 700 jobs from June 2011.

In addition to new retailers, the Tri-Cities has also seen more people willing to spend money, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist.

While construction is down by about 800 jobs compared to June 2011, Suljic said last year's numbers still showed the spike in employment caused by the first-time homebuyer tax credit.

In 2011, construction grew by 700 jobs, instead of the 100 to 200 job growth the area saw during non-tax credit years, she said.

The leisure and hospitality sector was up by about 400 jobs compared with June 2011.

Kris Watkins, Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau president & CEO, said while the number of conventions have remained flat, the Tri-Cities has seen the number of people attending conventions increase. And sports events are drawing more teams, also adding to area visitors.

The area has seen a drop in government-related business travel, she said.

Farm employment in Benton, Franklin and Walla Walla counties was up by 5.6 percent to 18,240 workers, compared to June 2011, according to the state's Agricultural Labor Employment and Wages report.

Cherry harvest in the Mid-Columbia started mid-June. Industry experts expect about 18 million boxes of sweet cherries will be picked this year in Washington, which grows the most sweet cherries in the nation. Benton and Franklin counties have about 9,000 acres of sweet cherries.

The cherries are hand-picked, with the last of the cherries expected to be off the trees early September.

Total employment, including agriculture and miscellaneous jobs, did grow to 128,810 Tri-Citians, an increase of 1,450 workers compared to June 2011.

The Tri-Cities remained above the state unemployment of 8.2 percent in June.

Benton County had an unemployment rate of 8.3 percent, while Franklin County's was 8.7 percent.

That means 11,870 people in Benton and Franklin counties were unemployed and actively searching for work. Not all of those people were receiving unemployment benefits.

WorkSource Columbia Basin helped 2,713 people with their job search during June, which didn't change much from May, said Michelle Mann, area manager.

The number of job listings remains unchanged, she said. Agricultural and food processing jobs have picked up.

H&R Block will be looking for people with accounting skills during an annual job event noon to 5 p.m. Aug. 14 at WorkSource Columbia Basin's Kennewick office.

And Mann said they are planning an Oct. 11 job fair at Washington State University Tri-Cities to help students and laid-off Hanford workers find jobs.

Other area counties unemployment rates in June were:

Adams County, 8 percent; Columbia County, 10 percent; Grant County, 8.7 percent; Walla County, 6.8 percent; and Yakima County, 9.3 percent.

-- Annette Cary contributed to this story

-- Kristi Pihl: 582-1512;