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County jobless rate highest since '02

December 03, 2008|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County has climbed past an economic standard it hadn't hit in nearly six years: 6 percent unemployment.

State figures show the county's unemployment level at 6.3 percent for October, the most recent month for which figures are available. The last time it was that high was January 2002, according to state and federal labor data.

It last hit 6 percent in January 2003.

"We're at a number that starts to be concerning," said Timothy Troxell, executive director of the Hagerstown-Washington County Economic Development Commission.

Employment officials and observers have seen the effects in various ways.

Troxell said the lagging national economy has hurt the local construction and manufacturing trades.

Spherion, a temporary staffing office in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md., is getting more clients who lost jobs after long careers, said Tammy Feaster, a manager.

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"We've seen a lot more people coming in," said Crystal Pereschuk, a customer support associate at Aerotek, a staffing agency in Hagerstown. However, there have been few jobs to offer them.

The state Department of Labor, Licensing & Regulation's One-Stop Job Center in Hagerstown is getting 200 people a day looking for help finding jobs, said Suzette Snyder, a labor exchange administrator.

Twelve to 18 months ago, the office sometimes would get 75 people. "And that was a busy day," Snyder said.

Statewide, the trend has been similar. Maryland's unemployment rate for October was 4.9 percent, the highest it has been since January 2003.

Matching the national climate, the Tri-State area has seen its share of job cuts.

JLG has laid off several hundred people worldwide in recent months, including cuts at its McConnellsburg, Bedford and Shippensburg, Pa., facilities. Additional layoffs are planned in January.

Rayloc eliminated more than 250 jobs in Hancock this year.

In October, Volvo Powertrain cut 65 positions at its plant north of Hagerstown. The company cited a "weakening of the market for commercial vehicles," adding that a "global financial crisis has further accelerated the weakening of the business cycle."

Statton Furniture Manufacturing Inc. in Hagerstown announced in September that it was shutting down after 82 years in business, putting about three dozen longtime employees out of work.

Washington County Health System, the county's largest employer in 2007-08, isn't laying off employees, spokeswoman Maureen Theriault said.

She said turnover at Washington County Hospital has dropped considerably.

In September, vacancy rates were 9.0 percent for nurses and 3.7 percent for all employees. This week, the rates were 2.5 percent for nurses and 1.9 percent for all employees, Theriault said.

Amid gloomy news, though, there are a few good economic signs.

Snyder said residential construction is down, but commercial construction is not. That includes one of the area's largest projects, a new hospital being built on Robinwood Drive.

"From a capital investment standpoint, we're still having a pretty darn good year," Troxell said, mentioning defense-related projects at Hagerstown Regional Airport and FedEx's plans for a new truck terminal as examples.

The EDC's area employment figures for 2008-09, which haven't been released, show an increase in jobs for some companies, including FedEx, Duvinage and Ellsworth Electric, Troxell said.

One of the largest percentage gains is at Parker Plastics, a Hagerstown-area company that makes custom bottles and containers.

Parker Plastics has increased its workforce from 26 to 43 employees over the last year as it expanded its plant off Western Maryland Parkway.

Plant Manager Jim Brown said the company takes lower-quantity production orders from smaller businesses, a protection against widescale swings in the market.

It also relies on just-in-time delivery, giving it a quicker response to market conditions. Brown said business connected to new product lines, such as barbecue sauces put out by Budweiser and Jim Beam, is up 40 to 50 percent.

Parker Plastics soon will start making five-gallon water containers using its newly expanded workforce, Brown said.

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