State jobless rate levels off in April

Washington’s unemployment rate, growing steadily for the last 17 months, took a breather in April, settling in at 9.1 percent, the same figure as in March.

In Thurston County, unemployment fell by 0.1 percent to 8.1 percent last month. The state said strength in government employment numbers helped keep that number on the positive side. Governmental employment statewide rose by 2,400 jobs statewide during April, making it the strongest part of the economy in employment terms.

The new figures were announced Tuesday morning by the state Employment Security Department.

In Pierce County, the state said, the unemployment rate was up marginally to 10.3 percent. That’s 0.1 percent above the rate in March. In King County, the unemployment rate fell from 7.9 percent in March to 7 percent in April.

The statewide unemployment rate last month was more than double the 4.5 percent rate in April last year. In Thurston County, the unemployment rate in April last year was 4.4 percent.

Statewide, 116,100 people lost their jobs in Washington during the year ending in April. Some 43 percent of those losses occurred during the first three months of 2009, said the state.

The Employment Security Department’s chief economist, Mary Ayala, said the figures don’t necessarily mean that unemployment growth is over, but they’re good news nonetheless.

“It’s much too soon to assume that the unemployment rate will begin going down,” she said.

Historically, the unemployment rate has continued rising for a few months after a recession is over because employers are reluctant to begin hiring again until they’re positive the recession is done.

From an unemployment perspective, this recession is not yet as bad as the 1981-1982 recession, said Greg Weeks, the director of the department’s labor market information branch.

In that recession, unemployment peaked at 12.2 percent in late 1982. The unemployment rate stayed above 7 percent for five years after that.

In the more recent 2001-2002 recession, unemployment topped out at 7.7 percent, well below the figure we’ve already reached in this recession, he said.

Unemployment stayed above 7 percent through all of 2003, he said.

“We don’t know what the future holds,” said Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee. “But for now it’s great to see our unemployment rate holding steady.”

Adding more jobs in April were government, up 2,400 jobs; leisure and hospitality, up 700; financial activity, up 400 jobs; education and health services, up 200; and transportation and warehousing, ahead by 100 jobs.

That positive outlook in the government sector could change in the next few months as the effects of tighter budgets become evident in the layoff of teachers and government workers.

Also imminent are further cuts at Boeing, which has said it will trim 4,500 jobs in its Puget Sound-based Commercial Airplanes Group this year; and layoffs may occur in the auto industry as both Chrysler and General Motors carry out plans to cull the ranks of dealers throughout the country.

John Gillie: 253-597-8663