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Good news for job-seekers: This Tri-Cities industry has more workers than it’s ever had

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If you are laid off from your job, then you may be eligible for unemployment insurance, but you must abide by the rules. Some people misunderstand their legal responsibilities when they receive these benefits, which can lead to a commission of fraud.

The planned refueling outage at the Energy Northwest nuclear plant near Richland is helping shatter an important jobs record in the Mid-Columbia.

Thanks in part to hiring for the refueling and maintenance outage, the construction industry added 900 jobs in April, pushing construction-related employment to 10,100.

That’s an all-time record and the first time construction employment has gone above 10,000, according to monthly employment figures released Tuesday by the Washington Employment Security Department.

The 900 gain is significant, even taking seasonal hiring for residential and commercial building into account, said Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist.

Energy Northwest isn’t the sole driver, but many of the 1,200 temporary workers hired are from construction trades such as pipefitting.

The plant goes back on line next month at the end of a $127 million outage cycle. The work includes 1,300 worker orders and 7,500 tasks.

Home builders are hiring

On the residential side, home builders are hiring workers too as they secure permits to construct new dwellings — 153 in April and 456 for the year to date.

That’s up slightly compared with the 442 permits over the same period in 2018, according to the Home Builders Association of Tri-Cities.

The Tri-City unemployment rate fell to 5.7%, from 7.1% in March.

Somewhat troubling, unemployment is running slightly higher than in 2018.

April was the third consecutive month for year-over year increases for the Tri-Cities. The state posted its second month of year-over-year increases.

Suljic isn’t alarmed. It will take several more months for the lingering impacts of heavy snow in January and February to work out.

“Slowly, we’re getting there,” she said.

Late snowfall delayed hiring

The late, heavy snowfall delayed the start of the growing and construction seasons.

Suljic said growers and processors are in full-swing and hiring workers for everything from the early crops such as asparagus and cherries to food processing. As a result, food manufacturing contributed to April’s rosy numbers.

Manufacturing, chiefly food processing, added 1,100 jobs in April, pushing the labor force to 9,000.

Suljic called food processing an emerging sector of the local economy. It provides an outlet for retail and other part-time workers seeking full-time work with regular hours and possible benefits.

It’s also one of the better-paying industries with a demand for skilled workers.

“It’s gearing up toward being one of those significantly important industries,” Suljic said.

The Mid-Columbia’s civilian labor force grew to nearly 145,000 workers in April, 5,500 more than in 2018 and nearly 9,000 more than in 2017.

There were 8,329 people looking for work in April. Suljic notes that’s about 2,000 fewer job-seekers than the prior month.

“We are in the full swing of hiring for agriculture,” she said. “Other industries are picking up — leisure and hospitality and food services. It’s not too bad.”

Statewide unemployment is down

On a down note, state figures show a sharp drop in employment by local governments such as counties, cities and school districts. Officially, local government dropped by 900 positions, to 15,100 in April.

The numbers reflect a change in reporting, not actual layoffs, Suljic said.

The statewide unemployment rate was 4.5% in April, down from 5.2% in March and up from 4.3% the prior year.

Elsewhere: Bellingham, 5.1%; Bremerton, 5%; Longview, 6.5%; Seattle/Bellevue/Everett, 2.9%; Spokane, 5.6%; Spokane Valley, 5.8%; Walla Walla, 5.1%; Wenatchee, 5.5%.

Wendy Culverwell writes about local government and politics, focusing on how those decisions affect your life. She also covers key business and economic development changes that shape our community. Her restaurant column and health inspection reports are reader favorites. She’s been a news reporter in Washington and Oregon for 25 years.

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