Unemployment rates drop locally

COVINGTON -- The unemployment rate in Newton and Rockdale counties continues to be higher than the state and national levels, but there has been some improvement over the past six months, according to statistics from the Georgia Department of Labor.

Georgia's official unemployment rate is 10 percent, while the national rate is 9.5 percent. Those rates have been seasonally adjusted, meaning they take into account seasonal hiring/layoff patterns that go along with winter and summer holidays.

Not taking these factors into account, Georgia's rate rises to 10.3 percent. County by county data published by the department is not seasonally adjusted. For June, the most recent month for which data is available, Rockdale County's unemployment rate held steady at 11.2 percent, the same it was in June 2009. The county's work force was reported at 39,223, with 4,399 unemployed. Rockdale closed out 2009 with an unemployment rate of 11.9 percent.

Newton County's unemployment rate was 11.8 percent. The county's labor force was reported at 45,817, with 5,396 unemployed. Those numbers are an improvement over June 2009, when the rate was at 12.2 percent, and from the year-end rate of 12.9 percent.

It will be another two weeks before the Georgia Department of Labor publishes county by county data for July, and those numbers could be less encouraging, based on a recent report from the U.S. Department of Labor.

The Labor Department said Thursday that applications for jobless benefits rose last week to the highest level in almost six months, a sign that hiring is weak and employers are still cutting staff.

First-time claims for jobless benefits edged up by 2,000 to a seasonally adjusted 484,000, the Labor Department said. Analysts had expected a drop. That's the highest total since February, the Associated Press reported.

Initial claims have now risen in three of the last four weeks and are close to their high point for the year of 490,000, reached in late January. The four-week average, which smooths volatility, soared by 14,250 to 473,500, also the highest since late February.

Analysts told The Associated Press that the unexpected rise in claims suggests hiring in August won't be much better than in July.

The government's July jobs report, released Friday, showed that the economy lost a net total of 131,000 jobs last month. Excluding the impact of the elimination of 143,000 temporary census jobs, the economy added a meager 12,000 positions, as layoffs by state and local governments almost canceled out weak hiring by businesses.

Thursday's report on jobless claims indicates that trend may not change soon. Claims fell steadily last year from their peak of 651,000, reached in March 2009. But they have mostly leveled out this year at or above 450,000. In a healthy economy with rapid hiring, claims usually drop below 400,000.

The rise in claims is a sign that private employers may be ramping up layoffs, which declined as recently as June, according to a separate government report released Wednesday.

Some economists speculate that many census workers whose jobs are finished are requesting unemployment benefits.

Claims could also be rising because of large job cuts by state and local governments, which are struggling with unprecedented budget gaps. State and local governments cut 48,000 jobs in July.

Another possibility is that small companies, facing tight credit, are still reducing their staffs, even as larger corporations slowly resume hiring.

During the recession, Congress added up to 73 extra weeks of unemployment benefits, on top of the 26 usually provided by states. That extended program lapsed in early June but was reinstated by Congress last month.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.