COLUMBIA, SC (WMBF) - South Carolina unemployment officials released the state's jobless rate for February on Friday, noting it remained unchanged at 12.5 percent from the revised January rate.
The State Employment Security Commission's release follows earlier reports that January's unemployment rate was a record high 12.6 percent, revised to 12.5 percent.
"These recent readings are consistent with labor markets beginning to show some stability," explained Coastal Carolina University economist Don Schunk. "Seasonally-adjusted initial claims in South Carolina peaked in March 2009 and have been generally falling since, signaling a slowing in the pace of layoffs and indicating that our labor markets are approaching stability. However, further increases in the unemployment rate are still possible as previously discouraged workers begin to return to the labor force."
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the state's labor force at 2,175,356 in February, up 1,375 over the revised January level. The estimated number of unemployed decreased by1,035 to 271,140. The national jobless rate also held steady in February at 9.7 percent.
"We are encouraged by the job gains in most industry divisions as well as the slight downward movement in the number of unemployed in February," said Samuel R. Foster, interim executive director of the South Carolina Employment Security Commission. "Going forward, we are hopeful this direction will continue; nevertheless, we feel this will be a slow and arduous process as the state attempts to recover from the recent recession."
South Carolina's persistently high jobless rate has been among the nation's worst for more than a year. The rate was 11 percent last February and some economists have predicted it could go as high as 14 percent.
The record number of South Carolinians out of work forced the state to borrow money from the federal government to pay unemployment benefits.
Schunk says for all of 2009, total employment statewide fell by 5.5 percent, and while job losses have slowed, the state continues to wait for new hiring to begin.
"The economy continues to be characterized by high levels of excess capacity — in housing, commercial and office space, industrial production and retail activity," he said. "This excess capacity suggests that the economy can begin to grow — and it is — but without the need for new construction, expansions or substantial hiring.
"Perhaps even more troubling, however, is that even if South Carolina began to see job growth return immediately at historically normal rates of growth, it could be 2015 before we returned to the level of employment reached in early 2008," he added.
Schunk noted that February's report is the best since the recession began, and the state's unemployment rate held steady even with some growth in the labor force.
"An economic recovery is under way, but significant challenges remain," he said. "State and local governments in South Carolina have yet to feel the full brunt of the budget crisis, and a significant portion of households continue to directly feel the pain of the recession. A recovery is forming, but I expect it to remain fragile for an extended period."
Lawmakers are revamping the agency responsible for collecting unemployment taxes and paying benefits and are expected to move those functions to a new cabinet-level agency under the governor's control.
Copyright 2010WMBF News. All rights reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.