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D.C. region's unemployment rate edges up in September

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By Ylan Q. Mui and V. Dion Haynes
Thursday, October 22, 2009

The region's unemployment rate edged up in September, mirroring the slowing but persistent rise in joblessness across the country, according to government data released Wednesday.

In the District, the unemployment rate rose to 11.4 percent in September from 11.1 percent in August, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, driven by the end of a summer jobs program for youth. The monthly jobless rate rose to 7.2 percent from 7.1 percent in Maryland and to 6.7 percent from 6.6 percent in Virginia after falling slightly in both states in August.

The Washington region has remained relatively resilient through the recession. Some states have hemorrhaged jobs, with Michigan leading the way with a 15.3 percent jobless rate in September. In contrast, Maryland and Virginia enjoy some of the lowest rates in the country.

"That's pretty impressive, and that extent of gap is quite unusual," said Anirban Basu, chairman and chief executive of Sage Policy Group, a Baltimore economic and policy consulting firm. "It is a testament to the region's capacity to withstand the deepest aspects of the economic downturn."

The federal government and the robust contracting industry have buoyed the region. Even in the District, where unemployment traditionally is higher than in Maryland and Virginia, the federal government added 5,900 jobs in the past year, officials said.

"The economy is not going to turn around in one month . . . but we hope this is the beginning of a positive trend in the District," said Dy Brown, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Employment Services.

The number of jobs in the District -- which is calculated separately from the unemployment rate -- fell by 1.4 percent to 702,600 in September from the previous month. District officials said the education and health-services sectors created more than 3,000 jobs last month. But that was offset by the end of the Summer Youth Employment Program, which had placed about 16,000 young people in jobs.

In Virginia, the 0.1-percentage-point rise in the unemployment rate does not necessarily mean more people are losing their jobs, said William F. Mezger, chief economist at the state Employment Commission. In fact, the number of unemployed people decreased to 270,000 in September from 272,000 in August.

He attributed the higher rate to a smaller labor force, which resulted from students leaving their summer jobs to return to school. The unemployment rate is a measure of the number of people out of a job but who are looking for work.

"I don't see any significant economic change," Mezger said.

Maryland officials said there are signs that the job market has begun to stabilize. Though the state lost 3,600 jobs in September, that is significantly less than the average monthly loss of 4,700 jobs for the previous eight months. In addition, about 1,400 construction jobs were added last month -- the first gain in that sector in 18 months.

Economists predict the region will continue to lose jobs at a slow rate through early next year.

"This is a frustrating period because people are eager to see things improve," Basu said. "The recession is probably over, but that doesn't mean the distress in the labor market is."


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