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Bouncing Back 

Unemployment benefits are expiring, but there's reason to be optimistic about Spokane's regional economy

An estimated 25,000 jobless workers in Washington — including 1,480 in Spokane County — will lose their federal emergency unemployment benefits at the end of this month, according to the state Employment Security Department.

The U.S. budget deal, brokered last week by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), does not include an extension of the Emergency Unemployment Compensation program. Since July 2008, Congress has extended the program 11 times to help the long-term unemployed cope with the economic downtown. Jobless workers in Washington received up to 63 weeks of unemployment insurance — 26 weeks of regular benefits from the state and 37 weeks of emergency benefits thanks to federal aid. According to ESD, the federally funded program has paid more than 452,000 people in Washington $6.3 billion in unemployment benefits.

Now, for the first time in five years, the maximum length of a time that an unemployed person can receive jobless benefits will drop to 26 weeks or less in every state. Three days after Christmas, 1.3 million people across the country will lose their unemployment benefits. Another 3.6 million will lose their benefits by the end of 2014.

Congressional Republicans argue that the economy is recovering — the jobless rate is now 7 percent, down from nearly 10 percent at the height of the recession — and that extending the benefits discourages people from entering the workforce. But Chad Stone, chief economist of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities in Washington, D.C., says it's too soon to let the program expire.

"Technically, we're out of the recession, but we're having a very slow job recovery and the labor market is not back to normal," Stone says. He notes that the long-term unemployment rate, representing the number of people who have been looking for work for 27 weeks or longer, is 2.6 percent, "twice as high as it's ever been before when we let this program expire.

"We need jobs," he says, "and we're not getting there."

But in Spokane County, there's reason to be optimistic about job prospects for the long-term unemployed, says Spokane's regional labor economist Doug Tweedy.

Roughly 6,000 jobs were created in Spokane County in the past year, beating Tweedy's projections. These jobs mainly came from advanced manufacturing; transportation and warehousing; health care; and something called "professional, scientific and technical services," thanks to the new Washington State University medical school. As these industries grow, fields that took a hit in the recession, such as construction, retail and leisure and hospitality, are bouncing back. For the first time in five years, the jobless rate in Spokane County dropped below 7 percent in September.

"I think this will be sustainable," Tweedy says. "We've laid a good foundation for recovery. It has been slow, but because of that good foundation, [the job market] is really diversified. We have five industries that are leading this recovery and [creating] good paying jobs."

If your unemployment benefits are ending and you're looking for work, Tweedy and ESD recommend stopping by your local WorkSource office for assistance in finding a job and improving your marketability to potential employers.

"Fortunately, the economy is starting to increase in its recovery," Tweedy says, "and hopefully as they come off these benefits, there will be job opportunities out there." ♦

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