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County's jobless rate highest since '96

March 20, 2009|By HEATHER KEELS

WASHINGTON COUNTY -- Washington County's unemployment rate soared in January to 9.2 percent, almost double what it was in January 2008, according to the latest figures from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation.

More than 6,200 Washington County residents were unemployed in January out of a labor force of about 67,800, according to the department.

That was up from December 2008, when about 5,000 Washington County residents, or 7.5 percent, were unemployed.

In January 2008, the county's unemployment rate was 4.7 percent.

Washington County's unemployment rate in January was the highest it has been since January 1996, when it reached 9.3 percent.

The high January rate might be related to residents collecting unemployment benefits longer due to extensions passed by Congress late last year, said Suzette Snyder, Western Maryland Labor Exchange administrator.

Unemployment insurance recipients were notified in mid-December they were eligible for an additional seven-week extension, for a total of 20 weeks of emergency unemployment compensation on top of the normal 26 weeks of benefits, according to the state labor department.

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The increase in January might have included workers furloughed that month from Volvo Powertrain North America's Washington County plant, Snyder said. Volvo cut back production rates Jan. 5, laying off 142 workers.

"There were a lot of layoffs in January," Snyder said. "I guess companies held on to their employees through the holidays and were waiting to see what was going to happen."

Layoffs also were occurring at Teleflex Marine, which laid off 93 employees before closing in early February, and at Citi, which was to lay off 121 employees in the first quarter of 2009, said Peter Thomas, executive director of the Western Maryland Consortium, a regional work force development agency.

"I think we're probably just seeing some of the numbers showing up now from layoffs that occurred a little bit earlier," Thomas said. "There were a number of them headed out around the same time, and I suspect that had a lot to do with it."

In addition to the large plant closures and big name layoffs, many other companies have been instituting smaller-scale layoffs, which add up quickly, Thomas said.

"I think the slowdown is obviously across the board, in all industries," Thomas said. "It's not isolated just to a certain segment of industry. It's everywhere."

Washington County's unemployment rate was higher than both the state and national rates in January. Maryland's January unemployment rate was 6.7 percent, and the national rate was 8.5 percent.

Thomas said it is normal for Western Maryland's rates to be higher than the state average. Maryland's employment rate is boosted by government and military employees concentrated closer to Washington, D.C., he said.

Western Maryland's employment rates also suffer from the area's dependence on manufacturing, which has been particularly hard-hit in the slowdown, Thomas said.

January was the first time since 1993 that the state unemployment rate has topped 6 percent, the state labor department said.

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