Jobless rate keeps rising

The Baltimore Sun

Maryland's jobless rate rose to a nearly 17-year high of 6.7 percent last month, reflecting continuing economic woes in a deepening recession, the Labor Department said Friday.

The state's unemployment rate was the worst since April 1992, when it hit 6.9 percent.

While Maryland has fared better than many states, its unemployment has steadily risen as turmoil in the housing, construction and financial markets has widened. The state's jobless rate, adjusted for seasonal changes, climbed to 6.2 percent in January, from 5.4 percent in December.

Economists expect Maryland's unemployment to keep creeping up, despite some encouraging economic signs this week, including more buyers returning to the housing market.

"They are pieces of not-so-bad news in a sea of really bad news," said Daraius Irani, director of applied economics for the RESI consulting arm of Towson University. "There is some small bits of good news out there. It doesn't make a trend. It's still early to tell."

Maryland was among 49 states and the District of Columbia that saw month-to-month jobless rate increases in February. Nebraska was the exception.

Michigan had the highest jobless rate at 12 percent last month, while Wyoming had the lowest at 3.9 percent. Maryland was among 21 states that had lower rates than the U.S. overall.

Nationally, the unemployment rate hit 8.1 percent last month, the highest in more than 25 years.

More than 200,000 Maryland residents were seeking work in February, preliminary government figures show. More than 2.7 million Marylanders were on employment payrolls in February.

During the 12 months through February, the state lost 48,000 jobs, not adjusted for seasonal changes, figures show.

Maryland lost 6,600 jobs last month across almost all sectors, including construction, manufacturing and services.

"Unfortunately, as people cut back on spending on retail activities, going out to eat and getting services done, those all trickle down to individuals who work in those fields," Irani said.

Maryland has been somewhat buffered by its proximity to Washington and faces strong prospects with incoming jobs from the military base realignment process known as BRAC.

But Irani said the retail, construction and financial markets "have been leading the charge downward due to the housing market."

While acknowledging the downward trend, Christian S. Johansson, secretary of the Maryland Department of Business and Economic Development, remained positive about the state's economic health and ability to recover from trying times.

"Compared to the rest of the country, Maryland is still one of the most stable states to weather the recession," he said.

To be sure, there are employers that are hiring, but openings are few. And with job seekers plentiful, employers can be picky. The Economic Policy Institute estimates there are 3.9 job seekers per opening, compared with 1.7 unemployed workers per opening at the start of the recession in December 2007.

Sparks-based spice maker McCormick & Co. and retailer Auto Zone were among several companies advertising openings at a job fair at the Baltimore Convention Center earlier this week. Recruiters were inundated with hungry job seekers asking about openings.

When Coca-Cola held in-house recruiting events in recent weeks, one drew 200 people and another drew 100, said Vickie Bush, a field recruiter based in Rockville.

But the soda maker only has 15 seasonal and part-time openings for store merchandisers and warehouse loaders, Bush said.

"Attendance has been high. We're used to having high volume of people, but I could see an increase, almost double," she said.

James Anderson has been out of work since November, when he was laid off after 17 years as a driver for DHL Express. The shipping company announced plans to discontinue domestic-only air and ground services.

About 188 workers in the Baltimore area were laid off when DHL closed two pickup and delivery centers in January, one in Linthicum and one in Hunt Valley. About 9,500 workers were affected nationwide.

Anderson said he has been living on unemployment benefits and a small severance, with the last check to arrive this week.

The 37-year-old Baltimore resident has been to four interviews, but most employers want him as a part-time employee, he said.

"I've got savings, but I can't live off it," he said. "If you don't replenish it, you'll sink. I worked hard to get my house and my car. I don't want to lose those things. There are days when I'm discouraged, but I have a support system" of friends.

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