Region's Jobless Rate Up Sharply, Despite Federal Work

By V. Dion Haynes
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 28, 2009

The District, Maryland and Virginia continued shedding jobs at a rapid pace in February, according to government data released yesterday, with D.C.'s unemployment rate rising to nearly 10 percent.

Unlike the rest of the country, the area benefits from a growing federal workforce, which has helped shield it from the full brunt of job losses in manufacturing, retail and other private sector industries. Still, the unemployment rate in the District rose to 9.9 percent, up from 9.2 percent in January, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. City officials said late last year that they didn't expect the rate to get that high until 2010.

The city's figure far exceeds the national unemployment rate of 8.1 percent in February, up from 7.6 percent in January.

Maryland's unemployment rate has reached 6.7 percent, up from 6.2 percent during the first month of the year. And Virginia's jobless rate jumped to 6.6 percent from 6 percent.

"It's up, up and away, just like everywhere else," said Scott Hoyt, senior director of Moody's "It's startling how quickly the unemployment rate has risen in the last few months."

D.C.'s jobless rate soared much faster than city officials had predicted. In December, Chief Financial Officer Natwar M. Gandhi projected that unemployment would reach 9.8 percent in 2010, the highest percentage since the early 1980s. The rate likely will climb higher with the announcement this month by Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D) that the city would lay off 776 employees to close a budget gap.

The District's data "present a mixed picture of rising unemployment among our citizens, 12,700 more than a year ago, while the number of jobs in the city is increasing, 9,600 in the past year," Gandhi said in an e-mail. "This indicates that too many of our residents lack the requisite skills and training for the jobs being created."

Some analysts attributed the city's soaring unemployment rate to its high population of African Americans, who experience joblessness in larger proportions than other groups. In February, the national unemployment rate among blacks was 13.4 percent, compared with 6.9 percent for Asians and 7.3 for whites.

African Americans "are the first to be laid off and the last to be rehired," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm. Noting that the District also has a high proportion of undereducated and low-skilled residents, Basu added that employers figure that "people with less education attainment and less experience in the workforce are easy to replace."

Data from the Maryland Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation show that hundreds of people were laid off in February, including 200 at Barton-Cotton, a marketing firm in Columbia; 140 at Millennium Inorganic Chemicals in Baltimore;189 at two Home Depot Expo stores in Columbia and Bethesda; and 64 at the Ritz Camera headquarters in Beltsville.

"This is consistent with national trends," said Eric M. Seleznow, executive director of the Governor's Workforce Investment Board in Maryland. "A lot of different layoffs are happening in a lot of sectors."

Virginia gained 5,000 federal government jobs and 3,000 state jobs during the past 12 months ending in February, Hoyt said. At the same time, he said, the state lost 31,000 jobs in construction, 16,000 in manufacturing, 12,000 in retail and 11,000 in leisure and hospitality.

In February, mass layoffs occurred at numerous auto component parts suppliers, a Qimonda North America computer chip plant near Richmond and a Volvo truck factory in Dublin, said William F. Mezger, chief economist for the Virginia Employment Commission.

"There were about 9,000 jobs lost," Mezger said, adding that they were largely in the Richmond and Shenandoah Valley areas.

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