Jobless rate up, still lower than state

December 2011's rate of 7.4 percent is the same as last December's, but the city has fewer jobs now.

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Walla Walla County's unemployment rate climbed in December but remained an enviable number compared to other Washington counties.

The local jobless rate grew to 7.4 percent last month from November's 6.3 percent, according to figures released Tuesday by the state Employment Security Department.

The climb was characterized as "typical" for the time of year by regional labor economist Arum Kone.

The 7.4 percent rate matched the jobless rate from the same month a year earlier but belies a deeper trend. Despite the identical month-over-month unemployment rates, Walla Walla had hundreds fewer jobs last month than it did the same period a year earlier, Kone said.

The jobless figure does not reflect that, because the labor force is shrinking, too. In other words, more people have dropped out of the labor force and are simply not looking for work, he explained. The decrease in labor has been an ongoing trend.

Walla Walla's December number shone compared to the state's overall unemployment rate for the month, although Washington's jobless rate decreased slightly to 8.5 percent in December. That figure is the state's lowest in nearly three years, officials said.

Kone said positive signs across Washington bode well for Walla Walla.

"The question is how long will it take for that momentum to carry across the mountains," he said.

He said Walla Walla could also feel some indirect effects from the increase in unemployment in the Tri-Cities. He said the combined jobless rate for Benton and Franklin counties grew to 9.7 percent in December. That's a jump from 7.9 percent in December 2010.

"We have a lot of people that commute to work over there, and we have a lot of people from there who come over here," he said. The growing unemployment in that labor market is likely to have some impact here over time.

More directly, Walla Walla lost about 200 state government jobs and 140 construction jobs between December 2010 and last month, he said. The wholesale trade has also taken a hit. Kone said manufacturing has remained steady.

In neighboring Columbia County, unemployment for December was 11.5 percent, a slight increase from December 2010's 11.4 percent. Garfield County posted a 7.1 percent unemployment rate, which was a decrease from the 7.3 percent rate posted during the same month a year before.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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