WALLA WALLA -- Fewer local residents were out of work in January compared to a year ago, but more of them were receiving unemployment benefits.
Such is the latest twist in the unemployment picture reported Tuesday by the Washington state Employment Security Department.
Walla Walla County posted an 8.2 percent unemployment rate for January. That figure was up from December's 7.4 percent rate, but down from 9.1 percent during the same month a year earlier.
Regional labor economist Arum Kone said the increase from December is typical for January, which tends to be the peak for unemployment. Walla Walla's rate was the fifth lowest in the state, which posted an overall seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate of 8.9 percent.
But the month's local numbers contain a few oddities, Kone acknowledged. Fewer people were counted as unemployed than in the same period a year ago -- 2,440 compared to 2,760 in January 2011. However, more people are claiming unemployment insurance than they were last year. Kone said the difference could be explained a number of ways, including the nature of the employment, whether jobs include unemployment benefits or whether more people are simply filing for the insurance benefit.
Over the year, Walla Walla saw virtually no change in the number of nonfarm jobs. About 180 government jobs -- 50 of which were in education -- were lost over the year. But the private sector added 190 for an overall increase of 10 jobs.
"We're not experiencing that real obvious strength," Kone said. "We're still kind of moving along sideways at this point. It's not necessarily bad news."
Comparatively, the Tri-Cities posted its first double-digit unemployment rate since 1996. The jobless rate in Benton County was 9.5 percent in January. It was 11.5 percent in Franklin County. According to the Tri-City Herald, the increase from December's 9.6 percent rate appears to be driven by layoffs at Hanford and a seasonal drop in farm employment.
Nearby Columbia County posted a 12 percent unemployment rate in January. Garfield County had an 8 percent rate.