Oregon's jobless rate remains flat despite sign of growth

PORTLAND — The unemployment rate in Oregon remained flat at 11 percent in December but there was a small sign of job growth.

The jobless rate has barely budged for the last four months of 2009 — just like the national unemployment rate, which is stuck at about 10 percent.

But Oregon added 2,900 jobs in December — the first substantial monthly job gain since July 2008.

"Certainly the addition of 2,900 jobs was good news, positive news," said Amy Vander Vliet, Portland regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department. "And if you look at the employment trends going back to August, every month since August we've seen fewer and fewer monthly declines. So the trend is definitely in the right direction. If we continue along this line, we could be feeling the bottom right now."

Vander Vliet said the unemployment numbers were tracking well with the quarterly forecast from the state Office of Economic Analysis, suggesting the recession is ending if not already over. But she said the next few months may see only weak job growth, and there may even be a month or two with losses before the recovery gathers momentum later in the year.

Education and health services led the December gains, along with manufacturing and the trade, transportation and utilities sector. But construction and logging both posted some losses for December, along with the leisure and hospitality industry.

In another measure of improvement for the state economy, the number of unemployment claims in December dropped about 50 percent from December 2008, according to Tom Fuller, the chief spokesman for the Employment Department.

But Fuller noted the total number of Oregonians still receiving unemployment assistance is at an all-time high for the state. He said the state paid $2.8 billion in unemployment insurance benefits in 2009 to about 360,000 people.

Fuller said about 12,000 people will exhaust all of their benefits by the end of March. The state will try to assist them in finding jobs before their benefits run out, but many may have to scramble to find work, he said.

The state currently has more than 10,000 job openings listed but matching workers to the jobs can be difficult depending on skills, qualifications and whether they need to relocate, Fuller said.

In December, 209,576 Oregonians were unemployed, compared to 173,121 in December 2008.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski promised to seek more state and federal assistance for the large number of Oregonians still unemployed.

"Because of this need, I will continue to urge Congress to consider another unemployment benefit extension to ensure those who are out of work will continue to be able to look for work and support themselves and their families," Kulongoski said.

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