Jobless Claims Jump 25 Percent From '07 in N.Va.

By Chris L. Jenkins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, May 18, 2008

Unemployment insurance claims have increased sharply in Northern Virginia over the past year, reflecting broader economic trends across the country.

Although the unemployment rate in the Washington suburbs remains well below the national average, claims from jobless workers increased 25 percent from March 2007 to March 2008. Those figures mirrored a general increase in unemployment over the past year in Northern Virginia. In March, 2.9 percent of area residents were out of work, up from 2.2 percent, or 11,000 people, a year ago.

Virginia officials said that although the increases need to be watched carefully, the region is still one of best places in the country to look for work. The national unemployment rate in April was 5 percent.

State officials said that in most cases, the spike in claims was fueled by workers in the real estate and construction industries, including manual laborers and real estate agents. They said the number of claims reflects levels last seen before the housing market reached its apex a few years ago.

"Northern Virginia is back to where it was in 2004, 2005" regarding its overall unemployment statistics, said William F. Mezger, chief economist in the Economic Information Services Division at the Virginia Employment Commission.

Across the country, there were 380,000 new unemployment insurance applicants for the week ending April 26, up 38,000 over the previous week, according to federal data. Nearly 3 million workers were collecting state unemployment insurance at the end of April.

The Northern Virginia increases were largely distributed across the region's employment offices. Claims were up 25 percent in Fairfax County over last year and 17 percent in Alexandria. Fredericksburg reported a 42 percent increase, and Prince William claims rose 22 percent. In all, the Northern Virginia offices collected 3,564 claims in March, up from 2,837 a year before.

Although data on which jobs produced the most claims in the region are not available, Mezger said that, statewide, construction jobs accounted for about 11 percent of the 46,148 Virginians drawing benefits in March. That was followed by retail, trucking and transportation and manufacturing.

Federal law establishes guidelines for unemployment benefits, but each state determines many requirements related to eligibility, benefit levels and tax rates. In Virginia, eligibility is calculated by criteria that include how much an employee earned during part of the previous year and the number of hours worked over that period. Virginians received an average of 12.5 weeks of benefits, averaging $263.97 per week in 2007.

"We're still seeing a steady and consistent increase in people looking for help finding a job," said Howard Feldstein, director of the Arlington Employment Center, which has recorded a 27 percent increase in the number of people looking for work compared with the first quarter of 2007.

The increase in applications comes as advocates for the unemployed say that Virginia's eligibility requirements make it difficult for some laid-off workers to receive benefits. According to a study by the National Employment Law Project, a New York-based advocacy group, the state requires a minimum-wage earner to have worked at least 462 hours during the previous six months to receive benefits. Only 12 states had higher minimum-hours requirements.

"At this time, with the economy the way it is, do we really want to be 13th-worst?" said Ty Jones, a staff lawyer for the Virginia Poverty Law Center, which advocates for expanding laws so that more jobless Virginians can be eligible for benefits.

The increase in claims also comes as the Virginia Employment Commission announced last month that it plans to close its Fairfax County office and relocate 45 positions to offices across the state because of cuts in federal funding. That announcement came after the commission eliminated 243 staff positions, which included laying off 157 workers in March.

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