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Unemployment worsens in Spokane, statewide

Spokane employment fell by 2,280 in February and, despite a surprising decline in the number of those seeking work, the unemployment rate remained at levels the county has not experienced since the mid-1980s.

Employment, at 212,490, was about 10,000 less from February 2009, according to figures released Tuesday by the Washington Employment Security Department. Between January and February, Spokane County’s retail sector alone lost 700 positions.

The unemployment rate rose to 11.2 percent from 10.7 percent in January.

The statewide unemployment rate was 10.4 percent, or 9.5 percent if adjusted for the season. The national rate, also adjusted, was 9.7 percent.

The county labor force fell by more than 1,000 and statewide by almost 6,000 as discouraged workers either stopped looking or moved on.

The February job losses reversed a gain of 4,600 in January that officials had hoped was a signal Washington’s employment picture had brightened.

“We took a couple steps forward in January and one step back in February,” said Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee. “The path into the recession was steep but, as we’re seeing, the climb back out will be more gradual.”

Statewide, the hard-hit construction sector had added 2,700 jobs in January, only to subtract 3,200 in February. Losses were reported for every segment except retail, financial services, and mining and logging, where a total 1,100 jobs were created.

Doug Tweedy, the department’s regional labor economist for Spokane County, said job losses in January and February were seasonal, but deeper than in the past. Administration positions such as bookkeeping were cut along with seasonal workers, he said, but those jobs should come back as the economy gets a boost with the change in weather.

New unemployment claims are decreasing, Tweedy said, and the local WorkForce office has more than 1,500 jobs posted. There were 17,000 openings posted statewide, up from 16,000 in January, but state Labor Economist Dave Wallace said employment gains often lag behind gains in new job openings.

The three northeast counties reported the highest unemployment rates in the state, with Ferry at 17.5 percent, Stevens at 15.6 percent, and Pend Oreille at 16.2 percent.

Arum Kone, labor economist for that area, said prospects in Ferry County were improving with the opening of the Buckhorn Mine in nearby Wauconda, but Stevens is suffering from the depressed lumber market, and Pend Oreille from the closure of a zinc mine last year.