Western job scene still bleak

Jack Keith; The News Tribune


Washington and other West Coast states are being battered by the ailing economy, continuing to lead the country in high unemployment rates last month.

Washington ranked third in December, a position it has held off and on since last summer.

Alaska holds the dubious top spot, with Oregon second. The Dakotas and Nebraska posted the lowest jobless rates in December.

The new data, released Tuesday by the Labor Department, show the employment outlook in much of the country remains bleak. But no states reported wild swings in their unemployment rates, suggesting some stabilization - at least for now.

"Flat is the right adjective to describe the state's economy," Roberta Pauer, the Seattle economist for Washington State Employment Security, said recently.

"A flattened-out economy is an improvement over an economy in clear recession," she added.

Economists have predicted that the unemployment rate will slowly decline in 2003, but it will be a very slow drop. Pauer estimated it would take until 2005 for Washington to recoup the 86,500 jobs lost in the last 22 months.

Pierce County's jobless rate was 6.7 percent in December, down slightly from November's 6.8 percent. King County stands at 6.0 percent; Thurston County is at 5.3 percent.

The national economy's uneven recovery poses challenges for President Bush, who is pushing for another round of tax cuts to stimulate growth and create jobs. The nation's unemployment rate has hovered around 6 percent since April 2002.

The West Coast has been particularly hard-hit, and Bush, who has viewed political opportunities in that Democrat-backing region, may be forced to shift focus. Many economists predict the nation's jobless rate will continue to rise in coming months, going as high as 6.5 percent this summer and ending the year at current levels.

"The economy is flat - there is no new job growth," said Mark Zandi, chief economist at Economy.com.

On the West Coast, many different ills are affecting employment. Alaska officials say a drop in tourism and low energy prices earlier this year are major factors for that state's job troubles.

The technology bust, the 2001 energy crisis and the weak travel and aviation industries have taken a major toll on the West Coast.

The upper Midwest has consistently posted the lowest unemployment rates in the country. North and South Dakota had jobless rates of 3.0 percent last month, and Nebraska had 3.4 percent.

Those states have benefited from large agriculture subsidies that helped keep their economies afloat, Zandi said. Also, many workers laid off by companies in those states return to farming and are not counted as unemployed.

Another factor is the small populations in those states, Zandi said. North Dakota was the only state, along with the District of Columbia, that lost residents from July 1, 2001, to July 1, 2002.

Staff writer Barbara Clements and The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jack Keith: 253-552-7028



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