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JUNE 10, 2010

Unemployment rates drop in North Central Idaho

   Region 2 (North Central Idaho) had the second lowest unemployment rate of Idaho’s six regions in May, after its unemployment rate moved down from 8.5 percent in April to 7.5 percent in May.  Despite the improvement, the region’s unemployment rate remained a full percentage point above its level of 6.5 percent the year before.

   Clearwater County, where some temporary layoffs had pushed the unemployment rate to 16.8 percent in April, saw much of the improvement between April and May.  All north central Idaho counties saw their rates drop between April and May, except Lewis County, whose unemployment remained steady at 7.2 percent.

   Temporary employment for the 2010 Census is a small factor in the falling unemployment rates.  However, most of the improvement comes from longer term trends, particularly a resurgence in the manufacturing industry and continued expansion of health care facilities.  Retail stores, restaurants, and related businesses are beginning to hire—just a little—but at least they aren’t cutting jobs as they did most of the last two years.

    Regency’s Lewiston office is in the process of hiring 45 new workers over the next two months. Tourism in north central Idaho bucked the national downturn, holding its own.  Many experts believe that rising incomes and improved consumer confidence will help tourism grow this summer and fall.  Residential construction continues to lose jobs, but stimulus projects are putting some other construction businesses to work.  Upcoming reductions in public school and other local government employment will not be felt until the new budget year—or school year—begins.

   All the counties in north central Idaho have seen their unemployment rates drop from the record or near-record highs reached a few months ago.

   Clearwater County had the state’s highest unemployment rate in April.  Now that it no longer is affected by the temporary layoffs that caused its rate to surge in April, its rate is the 4th highest of Idaho’s 44 counties.  A year ago, it was the highest.

   With Nez Perce County’s unemployment rate increasing slightly over the last year and Asotin’s decreasing, the Lewiston MSA ended up with the same unemployment rate in May 2010 as in May 2009—6.6 percent.  Because the MSA’s labor force expanded, the unemployment rate remaining stable, means that the number of employed residents grew a healthy 4.5 percent from about 26,600 to about 27,800. 

   Statewide, Idaho’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate edged down another tenth of a percentage point to a forecasted nine percent in May as employers across the economy took on new workers in what was close to a normal seasonal pattern.

   It was the third month in a row Idaho's jobless rate has fallen after 31 straight monthly rate increases dating back to August 2007. And while May's rate was down from its peak of 9.5 percent in February, it still remained higher than at any other time since June 1983.

   “The decline was modest, but it continues what appears to be a downward trend and another sign the worst of the recession may be past,” said Idaho Department of Labor Senior Analyst Eduardo Silva, who develops the monthly unemployment rate forecast.

   Nationally, the unemployment rate dropped two-tenths of a point to 9.7 percent. May was the 104th consecutive month – eight years and eight months – that Idaho's unemployment has been below the national rate.

   Idaho employers hired nearly 10 percent more workers in May than they did in May 2009, boosting private sector employment by more than 5,000 over April. Government added another 2,000 jobs – a large number for census follow-up – increasing total non-farm jobs to only a half percentage point below May 2009 and creating the smallest year-over-year job gap since September 2008. The gap bottomed out at 7.5 percent last August – a loss of nearly 50,000 jobs.

   May's near-normal hiring pushed Idaho's total employment to 693,000. It was the fifth monthly increase in employment, and May’s total was 2,300 more workers on the job than in May 2009, marking the first substantial year-over-year increase in total employment since the recession began in December 2007.

   More than half of Idaho's counties posted declines in unemployment rates from April, and the number with double-digit rates dropped from 14 to 10. Valley County had the highest rate at 14.3 percent, but it was still down more than three full percentage points from April. Two counties – Clark and Onieda – dropped below five percent, marking the first time since last September that at least two counties had rates below five percent.

   Despite May's increased hiring activity, more than 68,000 Idaho workers were without jobs last month. While that was down from 69,500 in April, it remained the highest level of unemployed at any time prior to 2010.

   About 4,000 workers have already exhausted state and federal unemployment benefits without finding work. Depending on past wages, those weekly benefits run from a minimum of $72 for up to nearly 38 weeks to a maximum of $334 for up to 99 weeks.

   Congress, however, failed to extend the federal benefits before recessing last month. Those extensions provide benefit payments beyond the 10 to 26 weeks available under the regular state unemployment program. As a result, at least another 2,500 workers received their last benefit payments this week – and that number will increase weekly – unless Congress extends the federal program. About 44,000 workers a week have been collecting over $11 million in benefits this spring. 

   The only job declines in Idaho from April to May were in education and health care, and those followed the seasonal pattern.

   Economic activity was up throughout the state. Idaho's rural areas, which did not benefit as greatly from the economic expansion in the mid-2000s, appear to be stabilizing more quickly than the urban centers. The state’s largest metropolitan area, Boise, accounts for over 40 percent of the state’s nonfarm jobs but picked up only 27 percent of the new jobs in May. While the statewide job gap was at 0.5 percent in May, jobs in the Boise metro area were still 2.4 percent below May 2009.