Harbor notches highest jobless rate in the state

New employment numbers for May show Grays Harbor County again has the highest unemployment rate in the state at 13.7 percent.

Grays Harbor edged above Ferry County (13.5 percent) in northeastern Washington, while the statewide rate is 8.4 percent, a slight increase from the 8.1 percent seasonally adjusted rate in April. The new numbers from the state Employment Security Department are not seasonally adjusted and are still preliminary.

But they show that Grays Harbor unemployment has basically remained the same since it reached 13.8 percent last June, when it also led the state.

The numbers continued to rise even though extended benefits were eliminated for thousands of unemployed people across the state, with more than 63,000 affected by the end of the year, the state estimates.

In April, Grays Harbor had the second-highest unemployment rate in the state with 13.2 percent, dropping from March’s 14.2 percent.

Pacific County saw its unemployment numbers stay virtually the same, at 11.8 percent in May and 11.6 percent in April.

Jim Vleming, a regional labor economist for the state Employment Security Department, noted that Grays Harbor County overall has lost about 1,140 jobs in the past year, and many of those have been in manufacturing, construction and trades.

“The unemployment rate continues to be crazy high in Grays Harbor,” Vleming said. “There’s not a whole heck of a lot going on and it’s been tough to get any kind of momentum.”

Statewide, Vleming said there are “pockets of development” in areas like King County, but more rural counties continue to suffer. Lewis County’s 13 percent unemployment rate also is the same as last June, while Cowlitz County has gone up from 11.2 percent in June 2011 to 12.2 percent this May.

“The areas that are hardest hit are going to be the last to come back from it all,” Vleming said. “We’ve kind of been lost in the old woods for so long it’s hard to find our way out of it.”

Tim Gibbs, executive director and CEO of Greater Grays Harbor Inc., said he was discouraged by the new numbers, although he remains hopeful that two major employers, Hoquiam Plywood and Grays Harbor Paper, will fully restart operations in the coming months. Hoquiam Plywood already has been restarted under new ownership, and a new owner currently is working to complete he takeover of the paper company.

“I know there is still a very difficult economy out there,” Gibbs said. “My note of optimism is that with Hoquiam Plywood getting up and running and with a buyer at the table in negotiations trying to get through receivership on Grays Harbor Paper, there is a glimmer of hope going forward. But I know it is tough times.”

Vleming said even if there are a few small businesses opening, it takes larger employers in construction and manufacturing to make a lasting dent on the unemployment rate.

“It takes money to do things, and I think people are real reluctant to pull their money out unless it’s a sure thing anymore,” Vleming said.

Gibbs said he senses a “strong head wind” toward new economic development and that the unemployment rate can actually have a positive spin.

“We have a lot of qualified people that are available in the work force,” he said. “We have got a good work force, and we have good training programs, and we have a very good price point as far as being successful as a business.”

The negative side, he acknowledged, is the perception the numbers leave.

“We want people to think that this is a great place to do business and we have some large competitive advantages, whether it be fishing or shipping, or access to the world and transportation,” Gibbs said. “We want to cast off these shackles of the past and we also want to use this to say that we have people and opportunities here.”