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Unemployment soars in county

Dave Wallace, an economic analyst with the Washington State Employment Security Department, presented the latest employment statistics during an Island County Economic Development luncheon Thursday. - Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times
Dave Wallace, an economic analyst with the Washington State Employment Security Department, presented the latest employment statistics during an Island County Economic Development luncheon Thursday.
— image credit: Jessie Stensland/Whidbey News-Times

Island County’s unemployment rate vaulted to 8.2 percent in February, up a whopping 3.1 percent increase over the last five months.

Economists from the Washington State Employment Security Department have plenty of gloomy statistics about the Island County labor market, but they emphasize that there’s also some good news, and a glimmer of hope, in the numbers.

Dave Wallace, an economic analyst from Employment Security, gave a presentation to a packed crowd at the Whidbey Golf and County Club Thursday in an event hosted by the Island County Economic Development Council.

“Looking at the numbers, Island County looks relatively quite good. The rest of the state is suffering,” he said.

Joe Giannamore, labor economist for the region that includes the county, agrees with this assessment.

“The county is somewhat sheltered because of Navy jobs,” he said in an interview, referring to Whidbey Island Naval Air Station.

Island County’s 8.2 percent unemployment rate is not seasonally adjusted and does not include military employment, which significantly inflates the figure. By comparison, the state’s non-seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate in February was 9.3 percent; the adjusted rate was 8.4 percent.

“The number of jobs increased by 1 percent over the last year,” Wallace said. “It doesn’t sound too good, but under the circumstances, it’s very good.”

Island County actually added jobs in February. Non-farm employment in the county totaled 16,180 in February, up 150 over the January total. The unemployment rate increased because the civilian labor force increased by 290 in one month.

Thursday afternoon, a couple of women looking for jobs at WorkSource Whidbey, an agency in Oak Harbor that provides employment and training services, had pretty typical stories of joblessness in Island County. Joanna Guzman, a Navy wife, moved to Oak Harbor last November when her husband was transfered from San Diego. She has a degree in medical billing, but she can’t find a job.

Brittany Mahaffrey has been looking for a job since leaving the military last October. She said she may have finally found a job as a medical assistant, but she’s still looking just in case it doesn’t pan out. Her husband is also looking for a computer-related job after being laid off more than once.

“We’ve had a rough couple of years,” she said.

Probably because of the number of Navy spouses, Wallace said the statistics show that more women than men are employed in the county’s civilian economy. Unfortunately, their earnings are not equal to their male counterparts, even in the retail sector. Another unique thing about the county’s workforce, he said, is that it’s “top heavy” in the oldest groups of employees.

In Island County, retail trade represented the employment sector with the greatest job loss over the last year. There was a loss of 100 jobs, a 4.1 percent decline. A total of 80 jobs were lost in the construction industry, which was offset by 100 new paychecks in manufacturing. Also, government continues to expand, with 60 new jobs outside of the military.

Wallace said it’s not a surprise that four of the top five jobs that people were laid off from in February were in the construction industry.

According to both Wallace and Giannamore, the economy will likely hit bottom in the third quarter of the year. That likely means at least three more months of job losses, they said.

“We’re not in a depression and we’re not going into a depression,” Giannamore said, pointing out that 92 percent of those who want to work are employed.

“A year from now, it’s going to be better,” Wallace promised the concerned golf-club crowd.

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