Tri-Cities unemployment nears 8 percent

OLYMPIA -- About 2,100 nonfarm jobs were lost in the Tri-City area between November and December, the largest decline for that period since 1996, according to a Washington State Employment Security Department official.

Many of the job losses were not on farms but were related to a normal seasonal downturn in agricultural production, Ajsa Suljic, regional labor economist with the department, said Wednesday.

On the other hand, the area's nonfarm employers added 4,000 jobs between December 2009 and December 2010, a 4.2 percent increase.

"We continue to see slow, steady growth," Suljic said.

The loss of jobs last month meant another 830 people joined the ranks of the unemployed, raising the Tri-City unemployment rate from 7 to 7.8 percent.

Two sectors -- manufacturing and trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities -- suffered significant job losses in December of about 400 each.

Suljic said losses in manufacturing usually are associated with food processing, and the trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities losses mainly were associated with companies that either sell or transport agricultural products.

Job losses in these sectors are a reflection of the seasonal downturn in agricultural production normally seen from November through February.

Suljic said agricultural employment fell by 17.9 percent during the two-month period, dropping from 8,751 in November to 7,184 in December.

The 2,100 nonfarm jobs the area lost in December were about 1,000 more than in December of 2009, 2008 and 1996.

"Right now ... it's just a trend," Suljic said, adding that the figures the department released Wednesday are preliminary. "I can't assume much based on that."

Suljic said that she might look closer at the figures if the trend continues into January.

Suljic said employment figures started shooting up in April 2009 because of an influx of federal stimulus money for Hanford cleanup. "Rapid employment growth continued in the second and third quarters of 2010," Suljic added.

From December 2009 to December 2010, employment went up in all sectors except retail trade. The biggest gain was in professional and business services, which added 1,600 jobs.

About 800 jobs were added in the trade, transportation, warehousing and utilities sector. And 600 jobs were added in educational and health services.

Over the year, farm employment rose by 4.4 percent.

State unemployment trends mirrored the local figures.

The statewide unemployment rate rose slightly from 9.2 percent in November to 9.3 percent in December.

On the other hand, employment was up statewide over December 2009 by 1,800 private-sector jobs.

Factoring in a substantial loss of government jobs, that left a net gain of just 8,000 jobs statewide in 2010.

-- Kathy Korengel: 509-582-1541; kkorengel@tricityherald.com