The county's unemployment rate reached its highest point in nearly five years in December, with almost 800 more people out of work than in November.

The December jobless rate was 5.8 percent, just under the state and national levels for that month, the most recent for which figures are available. Carroll's jobless rate was at 2 percent forthe same period a year ago, state Department of Economic and Employment Development figures show.

"There's no doubt there's a recession going on," said Theodora Stephen, manager of the DEED office in Carroll.

The 1.3 percentage-point increase from November marked the second straight month the county's jobless rate rose after remaining steady since August. The rate has increased 2.5 percentage points since August.

Carroll's increase in December can be attributed partially to seasonal layoffs, Stephen said. Many construction workers were laid off that month, she said.

Employment at the county's major businesses remains steady despite seasonal fluctuations, which is a good sign, she said.

"December's always hectic for us because a lot of the companies have vacationshutdowns," Stephen said.

The unemployment figure was the highestsince February 1986, when it was 6 percent, DEED figures show. December's rate topped the 5.7 percent of February 1987.

The county's unemployment rate remains below the state's, as it has all year. Maryland's unemployment rate in December was 6 percent, up from 5.3 percent in November and 3.2 percent in December 1989.

The U.S. unemployment rate for December was 5.9 percent, up from 5.8 percent in November and 5.1 percent in December 1989. Monday, the government announced the national jobless rate for January was 6.2 percent.

The last time the state jobless rate exceeded the U.S. rate was in November 1981, when Maryland's rate was 8.1 percent and the national rate was 7.9 percent, said Patrick Arnold, director of labor market analysis and information for DEED.

Martin K. P. Hill of Masonry Contractors Hampstead, one of the county's largest contractors, said he has laid off nine workers since Christmas. Masonry Contractors normally employs about 38 people, he said.

He's still building homes, he said, but fewer than in the fall. In October, for example, he finalized sales on about six houses a week. That number has been cut in half now, he said.

"The economy seems to be tight. Buyers are out looking,but they need a little more confidence in the economy to make a commitment for a long-term mortgage payment," Hill said.

In Carroll, 788 more people were unemployed in December than had been in November.About 3,600 people were out of work in December.

The civilian labor force in the county from November to December decreased by 87 people, DEED figures show.

The increase in the state unemployment ratesignals a softening of Maryland's economy, a DEED news release says.

The decline in employment is a result of seasonal layoffs in hotel, amusements and agricultural areas, the department says, and also reflects downward trends in construction, auto manufacturing and restaurants. The numbers reflect a decline in "consumer discretionary spending," DEED says.

Across the state, unemployment rates ranged froma low of 3.3 percent in Montgomery County to a high of 15.3 percent in Worcester County, DEED says.

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