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Jackson County jobless rate ticks up to 11.7%

Jackson County job growth has stagnated in the past year, unable to keep pace even with a declining work force.

As a result, jobless figures are mired in the same double-digit strata as a year ago, even when so-called discouraged workers see their unemployment benefits end and drop out of the work force.

"As people's unemployment benefits run out, they fall out of the system and become discouraged workers," said Alec Miller, a senior economist and chief of operations at REMI-Northwest in Medford. "It's really an artifact of the way we keep track of people in the labor force — if you're not looking for work, you're not in the labor force. In a deep recession like this, it doesn't work as well."

Jackson County's employment picture was slightly worse in March than it was in February but it improved from a year earlier, according to Oregon Employment Department data released Tuesday.

March's seasonally-adjusted unemployment rate of 11.7 percent rose from 10.9 percent in February, but down from 12.4 percent in March 2009. The county's civilian labor force declined to 101,817 in March from 102,093 a year earlier.

"It's really hard after their benefits run out," Miller said. "The (federal government) has extended the benefits more than once, but that can only go on so long and after that they fall out."

Since March of 2009, payroll employment declined by 1,080 positions. For February to March of this year, however, gains in leisure and hospitality, along with local public education, accounted for a gain of 360 jobs for the month.

One in five families now receive food stamps, public assistance or temporary assistance, said Guy Tauer, a regional economist for the Employment Department.

"Some just go back to school, you can see that with (Rogue Community College's) numbers up," Tauer said. "Soon a few hundred more will enter the labor force with the National Guard returning (from duty in Mid-East). That will have an impact as they go back to their old jobs or are looking for employment."

With the Oregon Shakespeare Festival and other tourism businesses moving into a more active season, leisure and hospitality posted the largest estimated job gain in March, adding 140 jobs with 100 coming in the accommodations and food services.

The county's retail trade showed a slight gain of 40 jobs, while wholesale trade ticked up by 20 employees from February. Educational and health services added 40 positions, while government employment grew by 140.

During the preceding 12 months, the most notable declines occurred in construction, off 560 positions; manufacturing, down 330 employees; as well as professional and business services, a 230-person drop.

"With Harry & David losing people, it doesn't bode well for retail trade or the housing sector," Tauer said. "Those people may have to leave the area or they might wind up on foreclosure lists. Then there is the impact of the furniture stores (Joseph Winans and Scan Design) closing downtown."

On the flip side, Tauer said the re-opening of a plywood plant in Rogue River by Murphy Co. in June and Best Buy coming to Medford in late summer are positive signs.

Manufacturing, construction and boat building have appeared to bottom out as well.

"That's great news," Miller said. "I think those sectors cut as many people as they could, then they stopped. One of the of great things for Southern Oregon is that none of our big companies collapsed. Harry & David, Amy's Kitchen and the big helicopter companies (Erickson and Carson) are still here and strong. They have to wait for their business to come back; it's a matter of time. It think it's going to be next year — but next year is only nine months away."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

Jackson County jobless rate ticks up to 11.7%