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Kootenai County jobless rate doubles

August unemployment levels in Kootenai County were double those of a year ago, according to an Idaho Department of Labor report released Friday.

The report showed much of Idaho is suffering from declines in construction and manufacturing related to the nation’s housing crisis.

The unemployment rate for Kootenai County soared to 5.2 percent from 2.6 percent in August 2007. The jump was even more dramatic in Coeur d’Alene, where the rate reached 5.7 percent, compared with 2.5 percent a year ago. Out of a county labor force of nearly 70,000, 3,604 were unemployed, compared with 1,833 a year ago.

Kathryn Tacke, the Idaho Labor Department’s regional labor economist, said the contrast between August 2007 and August 2008 was heightened by the historically low unemployment rate of a year ago, when employers struggled to find the workers they needed. “We’re getting to a more normal level,” she said.

Rates in other North Idaho counties were: Benewah and Boundary, 7 percent; Bonner, 4.7 percent; and Shoshone, 7.3 percent. The statewide rate was 4.6 percent, a four-year high.

Washington state will release August unemployment figures later this month.

Tacke blamed the severe drop-off in residential building for much of the damage in Kootenai County. The decline has idled many construction workers, while the national slowdown has smothered demand for lumber produced by area loggers and mills, she said.

Fortunately, Tacke added, North Idaho’s economy has become more diverse. A similar slump in housing 15 years ago would have shuttered stores and triggered a surge in bankruptcies. “The region just would have been devastated,” she said.

Tacke said that North Idaho retailers, thanks in part to more Canadian tourists, have avoided layoffs. The growing population and ongoing introduction of new stores keeping more consumer dollars at home have helped, too, she said.

But Tacke was cautious about the upcoming holiday shopping season. Store owners know consumers are under stress, she said, and are likely to delay seasonal hiring. If November and December are cold, and utility bills high, Christmas spending may be subdued.

“My gut feeling is we will have a little less pre-Christmas hiring,” she said, noting that restaurants already are reporting slumping business.

To underscore the change in Idaho’s employment climate, the Labor Department reported that a new Costco in Pocatello received 4,000 applications for 160 jobs. There were more jobless workers in August – 34,600 – than at any time since August 1987.

The unemployment rate has climbed steadily and steeply from the 2.8 percent reported in February, the department said, but remained below the national rate for the 83rd consecutive month.