Jobless picture darkens in E. Wash. metro areas, bucking national trend
Eastern Washington is feeling the pain as unemployment rates increase.
Seattle Times business reporter
KENNEWICK — Claudia Stoffel pounds the virtual pavement of job listings on a computer at WorkSource Columbia Basin, Washington state's employment office in the Tri-Cities. It's Thursday afternoon, the day after the Fourth of July. She's been there since 11 a.m.
Before arriving, Stoffel visited Labor Ready, a company that connects job seekers with businesses searching for temporary help. Looking to get an early start on her job hunt — for any job — she got there at 5:45 a.m.
But other early risers already had been through. When Stoffel jotted her name down on the Labor Ready sign-up sheet, there were 15 above hers.
Lots of workers and not enough jobs.
This is the reality of the job market in this medium-size metropolis. The unemployment rate went up to 9 percent in May from 7.5 percent a year ago, the lowest in the state at that time.
It was the biggest yearly increase for any city in the country, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) report released in June on U.S. metropolitan areas. It said the unemployment rate in nine of 10 metropolitan areas dropped from May 2011 to May 2012, as did the nation's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, which fell to 8.2 percent from 9 percent.
But the Tri-Cities, made up of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland, went the opposite direction. In fact, all four major population centers in Eastern Washington bucked the national trend. The unemployment rates in Wenatchee and Yakima also increased, while Spokane stayed constant at 9.1 percent. By comparison, the rate in the Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue metro area was 7.6 percent, compared with 8.7 the year before.
The Eastern Washington numbers mean Stoffel's job prospects wouldn't improve much if she moved elsewhere in the region.
But Stoffel doesn't want to move out of the Tri-Cities anyway. She's 62 and wants to stay near her family.
"I've got my grandkids here," she said. "And I'm going to be a great-grandmother in September."
Her previous job was as a nanny in Spokane, but that was more than 11 years ago. She decided to re-enter the workforce last year after her husband died, and has since been looking for work at restaurants, hotels, or again as a nanny.
A shot from stimulus
Two years ago, the Tri-Cities area was riding high from a decade of rapid growth. In 2009, the three cities nestled at the intersection of the Columbia, Yakima and Snake rivers made up the only region in Washington to show economic growth, according to a 2010 report from the state Employment Security Department.
Ajsa Suljic, the regional labor economist at WorkSource Columbia Basin, said it's not unheard of in this arid region for job fortunes to move in the opposite direction from the broader U.S. job market.
"We usually do this about every 10 years," Suljic said.
That's mainly attributable to the Hanford nuclear site, just outside of Richland. The federal government often injects money into this decommissioned nuclear-fuel producer when economic times are tough, Suljic says.
In 2009, federal stimulus dollars flowed to Hanford, and by the beginning of 2011, it had 12,000 employees, many of whom work on the facility's nuclear-waste cleanup project. Last year, that pipeline of funds ran dry, and more than 2,000 Hanford employees lost their jobs.
"We now have about 1,400 more people taking unemployment insurance" than last September, said Suljic.
Although the Tri-Cities' economy has diversified since the days of the Cold War, the Hanford site — through its network of subcontractors — is still the area's largest employer.
Trouble for agriculture
The end of stimulus dollars, however, doesn't explain Yakima, Wenatchee and Spokane's stubborn job markets.
Dave McFadden, president of the Yakima County Development Association, is stumped by the BLS report.
"The bottom line is I'm reading these numbers, and I just can't make sense of them," he said.
He did note that Eastern Washington experienced a late spring, possibly postponing agricultural hires in Yakima and Wenatchee. In Yakima County, agriculture is a $1.1 billion business and accounts for more than 3,200 jobs.
Magnet for unemployed
Doug Tweedy, a regional labor economist at the state Employment Security Department, notes that rural areas east of the Cascades haven't fared well since the recession technically ended in 2009. The mining and forestry sectors, for example, have contracted, he says, and many of those workers are moving to their nearest cities.
"Workers came to these cities from resource-based industries," he said. "When you look on a map, Spokane is the largest job base between Seattle and Minneapolis."
Spokane's workforce grew by 4,400 people in the 2 ½ years after the recession began, he noted. That's in contrast to the rest of country, where people left the workforce in large numbers.
Tweedy explains that in Spokane, at least, the unemployment rate is probably not the best tool to gauge the economy's health. The city is adding jobs, he says; it also just has more people looking for them.
Energetic job seeker
The larger ranks of job seekers are making it particularly difficult for people like Claudia Stoffel, because she's seeking relatively low-wage employment.
Some of her fellow job seekers at the WorkSource office job-placement workshops are ex-Hanford scientists.
"One of the men that had been there was a nuclear physicist, and he's out looking for a job and going through these workshops," Stoffel said.
Stoffel has one promising lead at a hotel, however.
"I interviewed with human resources; then I interviewed with the housekeeping director," she said. She's still waiting to hear back.
But she hasn't let these challenges bring down her spirits. Despite searching for consistent work since last fall, she remains energetic. In addition to stopping in at the WorkSource office most days, she volunteers periodically at a teen homeless shelter in Pasco called My Friends Place.
Ajsa Suljic is rooting for this soon-to-be great-grandmother.
"Every time we find a job for somebody, we ring a bell," Suljic said.
Odds are Stoffel will keep coming back to this Kennewick employment office until it's rung for her.
Karl Baker: 206-464-2046 or email@example.com