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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Caldwell: Unemployment problems not going to just fade away

At the rate employers added workers in January, the last person who wants a job but cannot get one will begin drawing a paycheck sometime in the year 2396.

Unless the weather improves.

Mother Nature took the blame for the month’s bum numbers: a paltry 36,000 new jobs instead of the 136,000 predicted by economists who might do better work with a snow shovel.

An estimated 13.8 million are willing to work but cannot find a position.

The unemployment rate, determined by a separate household survey, fell to 9 percent from 9.4 percent in December and 9.8 percent in November. The decline reflects growth in the number of workers too discouraged to look for a job, not real improvement in the economy.

Were it not for growing strength in the manufacturing sector, where employers added 49,000 jobs, drawing anything positive out of Friday’s reports from the U.S. Department of Labor would be a stretch.

Especially poignant is the situation among veterans, for whom the unemployment rate is 9.9 percent. For the younger servicemen and women returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, the rate is 15.2 percent.

Meanwhile, lawmakers in Washington, D.C., Olympia and Boise hack away at the stress that managing unemployment causes business, workers and the two states, although “stress” is probably the wrong word to describe Washington’s situation.

With a reserve in its unemployment insurance fund good for another 14 months of benefits, the Senate on Friday approved a $300 million reduction in premiums that would benefit about 90 percent of Washington employers. But the House may pass a version Monday that slightly increases benefits, probably pushing enactment of a final bill beyond the Tuesday deadline set by Gov. Chris Gregoire.

Idaho, like 30 other states, has quite a different problem. The state has taken out $202.4 million in loans from the federal government because its unemployment fund is empty. Thursday, a bill was introduced that would authorize a bond sale, with the proceeds to be used to repay the loan. On Jan. 1, the feds started imposing a 4.1 percent interest charge on arrears, which total more than $42.5 billion for all delinquent states.

Idaho officials estimate the state’s strong bond rating would push interest on the unemployment fund bonds down to 2.25 percent.

The bonds would be repaid by extending the tax on employers, already at its maximum, out to 2016. With weekly claims down to $6.7 million last week from $8.8 million for the same week in 2010, and from $10.2 million in 2009, the state should not have to increase the tax on employers unless there is a double-dip to the recession.

This approach has worked for other states, and several besides Idaho may adopt the strategy. If there’s a drawback, it’s the succor for Wall Street bankers whose shenanigans put so many Americans on unemployment to begin with.

For workers out of a job because of foreign competition, another deadline looms this week. The Trade Adjustment Assistance program expires Saturday unless extended. The program provides income and training assistance to displaced workers, 5,000 in Washington among them. The estimated cost for 2011 is about $2.4 billion.

Thanks to the arcane ways of the Congress, the extension of TAA has gotten snarled in internal disputes over trade matters that include, if you can believe it, one involving sleeping bags.

How’s that for comfort to the millions out in the cold because they cannot find work?

Bert Caldwell can be reached at or (509) 459-5450.