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Martinsville Bulletin, Inc.
P. O. Box 3711
204 Broad Street
Martinsville, Virginia 24115
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Jobless rate tops 20% in Martinsville

Thursday, April 2, 2009

By MICKEY POWELL - Bulletin Staff Writer

More than one-fifth of Martinsville's labor force is unemployed as the city's jobless rate reached a record 20.2 percent in February, Virginia Employment Commission (VEC) figures released Wednesday show.

Henry and Patrick counties, as well as the city, saw sharp increases in their jobless rates, the figures reveal. Martinsville once again had the highest unemployment in the state - a distinction it briefly lost in January.

Bill Mezger, chief economist for the VEC's Economic Information Services Division, blamed the recession and jobless rates that already were high.

"Martinsville has been running on double-digit unemployment since before the recession," Mezger said. "When you put the recession on top of it," the situation gets worse.

The overall jobless rate for the Henry County-Martinsville micropolitan area rose from 14.1 percent in January to 15.7 percent in February, figures show.

Martinsville's jobless rate increased from 18.1 percent in January to 20.2 percent in February as the number of city residents searching for jobs rose from 1,144 to 1,301, according to statistics.

Unemployment in Henry County rose from 13.1 percent in January to 14.6 percent in February as the number of county residents looking for work rose from 3,490 to 3,945, figures indicate.

Patrick County's jobless rate jumped from 11.5 percent in January to 13.3 percent in February as the number of county residents in the unemployment lines increased from 1,099 to 1,284, statistics show.

In comparison, Martinsville's unemployment rate in February 2008 was 11.8 percent. Henry County's rate then was 7.7 percent, and Patrick County's rate was 5.4 percent.

"February is about always the lowest month of the year for employment," Mezger said, due to slowdowns in the retail sector following the Christmas shopping season and in the construction industry because of cold weather.

There also could have been furloughs among some local industries, Mezger said. He did not know of any, however, since the VEC only keeps records of job losses amounting to 100 or more at one time. Mezger said that to his knowledge, there were no such large layoffs in the region in February.

For workers who are furloughed by their companies, "when business picks back up, they'll probably go back to work," he said.

Some of the area's growth in unemployment is due to growth in its labor force, Mezger said. The labor force consists of residents who have jobs as well as those who are looking for work.

Henry County's labor force increased from 26,650 in January to 26,988 in February. Martinsville's rose from 6,314 to 6,444, and Patrick County's rose from 9,548 to 9,689, VEC figures indicate.

Mezger speculated that the local labor forces got larger as residents who worked in other places, including North Carolina, lost their jobs and started looking for work close to home.

He found it hard to predict whether the jobless rates will rise further if no major influx of new jobs occurs in the near future.

"Things normally start getting better in March or April" as warmer weather arrives and people who earn their livelihoods largely from working outdoors, such as construction workers, are able to find work, Mezger said.

But the rates could increase due to two factors, he said.

One is a layoff of about 100 Stanley Furniture Co. employees that was to occur in late March. The other factor is that the week in April in which the VEC will examine unemployment starts on Easter Sunday, and factories tend to call furloughs around holidays, he said.

Martinsville had Virginia's highest local jobless rate for many months before losing that distinction in January to Williamsburg, where the rate jumped to 19.5 percent due to layoffs in the tourism industry.

Mezger said Williamsburg dropped to second place in February. Its current jobless rate was not immediately available.

Among 134 localities statewide in which the VEC measures unemployment, Henry County ranked fifth in February, and Patrick County ranked ninth.

Martinsville's previous record jobless rate was 19.6 percent in December 1999 following the closing of textile manufacturer Tultex Corp.

Mezger was unable to determine record unemployment rates in Henry and Patrick counties. He said, though, that he thinks Henry County's highest jobless rate occurred soon after Tultex closed.

Mezger said jobless rates in southwestern Virginia counties have reached 30 percent or more during downturns in the coal industry, and unemployment in the Northern Neck region has reached around 25 percent during downturns in the fishing industry.

Virginia's statewide unemployment rate jumped from 6.4 percent in January to 7 percent in February, with approximately 291,100 people seeking work, the VEC reported. The national jobless rate was 8.9 percent in February.

Danville had the highest jobless rate among metropolitan areas in Virginia in February at 12.3 percent, which was down from 13.9 percent in January, the VEC said in a release.

Arlington County had the lowest unemployment in the state in February at 4.4 percent.


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