Walla Walla County jobless rate climbs, but less than usual

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A smaller-than-usual climb in January's unemployment may be a sign that the local economy is on the mend, labor officials say.

Walla Walla County's unemployment rate rose to 8 percent in January from a revised 7.1 percent in December, according to figures released this morning from the state Employment Security Department.

Though an increase between December and January is no surprise for this area, Regional Labor Economist Arum Kone said the latest figures show a slightly smaller jump than is normal considering the seasonal break in student employment and slowdowns in construction and farm work.

However, the historical increase between the two months typically hovers around 1.2 percentage points, Kone said. Last year's jump had an exceptional 2.1 percentage-point climb as the recession's brace began to take hold in Walla Walla. That slightly smaller increase between December and January this time around is a silver-lining for the community, Kone said.

"That would imply that the unemployment rate is not rising as typical," he said this morning. "It's definitely an indication that the economy is getting better."

Kone said Walla Walla County also saw an increase in the labor force, as well as a tiny increase in job growth from last year.

Retail sales employment was up about 30 jobs from the previous year, and professional business services and leisure and hospitality also saw strides in job creation, he said.

"It's not saying there's a robust economy and everybody's hiring, but we're not losing either," he said.

Washington state also saw an increase in jobs in January in the first monthly employment gain since November 2008, according to the figures.

Nevertheless, the unemployment rate inched to an estimated 9.3 percent from December's revised 9.2 percent.

"It's encouraging to see jobs finally coming back," Employment Security Commissioner Karen Lee said in an e-mailed statement to the Associated Press. "I hope it signals the beginning of a job-full recovery, not a job-less recovery."

December's unemployment rate was originally reported as 9.5 percent, but it was later revised to 9.2 percent. The highest rate in the state since the mid-1970s was in November 1982, when unemployment hit 12.2 percent.

About 360,000 people were still looking for work in the state in January, and more than 305,000 people received unemployment benefits.

The highest rate in the state in January was 16.2 percent in Ferry County in the northeast. Whitman County in the east had the lowest mark at 6.2 percent. The largest county, King, was at 8.8 percent.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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