State unemployment hits 10.8 percent

By Brad Cain

The Associated Press

SALEM ­­— Oregon's unemployment rate shot up by a full percentage point to 10.8 percent last month, the highest rate since July 1983 and well ahead of the national rate of 8.1 percent.

The February numbers released Monday showed the state losing another 21,700 jobs as Oregon's economy continues to struggle more than most.

"We're a state that makes things and exports them, more than your average state, so weakness in the global economy hits us harder than other places," said Josh Harwood, senior economist with the state Office of Economic Analysis.

The state likely won't see a slowing of job losses until mid-year or later, Harwood added.

In its latest jobs report, the Oregon Employment Department said all seven of Oregon's largest private-sector industry sectors shed jobs, led by a loss of 4,900 manufacturing jobs. Construction also has posted major job losses with a continuing housing slump.

Overall, Oregon's unemployment rate translated to 236,286 Oregonians on the jobless rolls last month. That compares with 211,286 in January, and 115,714 unemployed a year ago.

The employment agency said Oregon's unemployment rate has risen rapidly over the past eight months, from a rate of 5.9 percent last June to double-digits in the latest estimate. Meanwhile, the national jobless rate rose from 7.6 percent in January to last month's 8.1 percent mark.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski bemoaned the latest jobs report, saying it "is not just about numbers, it is about our family, friends and neighbors" who are out of work.

He said the state and federal governments are acting decisively to put people to work on public works and transportation projects. And he called for legislative action to expand unemployment benefits to part-time workers currently not eligible.

"I know that tougher days are still ahead," Kulongoski said. "We need to make sure that we continue to get help to those who are struggling most."

The Employment Department's February report said that the job losses in manufacturing came at a time of year when a gain of 700 would be the normal seasonal trend. Durable goods manufacturing cut 3,600 jobs in February, sinking to 123,800, its lowest level since comparable records began in 1990.

Construction job losses accelerated in February as job totals declined by 3,000 for the month at a time of year when a gain of 500 would have been the seasonal norm.

The agency said the industry is being hit hard by the falloff in demand for new housing and commercial space. In February, construction of buildings was down by 1,300 jobs and specialty trade contractors cut 1,600.

Seasonally adjusted employment in construction is now at 82,500, well below its all-time high of close to 104,000 during most of 2007, when the national housing bubble was at its peak.

The latest grim statistics had Democrats and Republicans offering different prescriptions for putting the state's economy back on track.

House Speaker Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, said that with the state and federal stimulus plans, "we will continue funding projects that create jobs and provide long-term benefits throughout the state. That's how we will work our way out of this recession."

The leader of the Senate Republicans, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, said promoting private sector jobs is the long-term solution.

"If we create an environment that allows employers to grow, thrive and to hire working Oregonians, the state budget problems will take care of themselves," he said.

Either way, Senate President Peter Courtney said the latest jobs report "sends a clear signal that we haven't yet reached the bottom of this recession." More families likely will be turning to the state for assistance at a time when the state budget is shrinking, he said.

"Lawmakers should remain concerned that our budget deficits — both in the current biennium and for 2009-2011 — will have increased when we get the May revenue forecast," the Salem Democrat said.

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