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More lost jobs foreseen before year-end rebound


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POSTED: Thursday, March 12, 2009

In the face of alarming unemployment statistics, state officials are optimistic Hawaii's unemployment rate, which hit a near 26-year high in January, will improve by the end of the year.

But in the meantime, anecdotal evidence suggests health care professionals have become busier as Hawaii's workers take advantage of medical benefits while still employed.

The 6.1 percent rate is the highest rate the state has seen since April 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It was up a full point from 5.1 percent (revised lower from 5.5 percent) last December and more than double the 3.0 percent of January 2008.

“;The two things we're looking at in the department right now, as far as things getting better, (are) the governor's five-point stimulus plan ... and the federal stimulus,”; said Ryan Markham, special assistant to the director of the state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.

The state has applied to receive $7.7 million from the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The funds will provide employment services and training to create and preserve jobs, according to a statement released yesterday.

Federal dollars already have added $25 a week per claimant to unemployment benefits, “;and that comes out to $600,000 a week more into the economy,”; Markham said.

The state's $1.89 billion capital improvements budget will first benefit planning and engineering firms, but “;we're hoping by the end of this year to get a lot of people off the bench in the construction industry,”; he said.

As layoffs continue, the volume of incoming claims for unemployment benefits “;seems to be steadying,”; said Markham. However, “;it could very well continue to get worse before it gets better.”;

Doctors and dentists offices, meanwhile, have gotten busier as residents concerned about losing their jobs maximize their health benefits.

“;We are experiencing a rather high volume”; of appointments, said Kendra Wong, office manager for Dr. K.B. Chun & Sons in Kailua.

Part of the volume is due to the deployment of one of the three brother dentists to Iraq, so “;two dentists are doing the work of three,”; but, “;I know that some are responding to the uncertainty of whether or not they're going to have jobs,”; she said. A large increase toward the end of last year carried over to this year.

“;I know a lot of businesses are taking a hit,”; Wong said. “;It just seems that we are actually increasing, partially because people are using up their benefits.”;

There also has been an increase in foot traffic at Dr. Christopher Teramura's podiatry practice in Kailua, according to the receptionist, who asked not to be named. The doctor was with a patient and not available.

While high, the 6.1 percent statewide mark will not add to the duration of unemployment benefits that might be collected.

Hawaii claimants are currently eligible for 46 weeks of benefits. Thirteen weeks were added in the summer, and another seven were added in the fall.

The federal government has a tiered system for adding benefit weeks, and the statewide unemployment rate is 15th lowest in the nation, insufficient to trigger additional payments, Markham said.

The national unemployment rate is 7.6 percent, up from 7.2 percent in December and 4.9 percent a year ago.

Unemployment is perennially highest on Molokai, and it skyrocketed to 12.5 percent in January, up from 8.9 percent in December and almost double the 7.0 percent recorded in January 2008.

Other counties also fared more poorly than the City and County of Honolulu, which had the state's lowest unemployment at 5.2 percent, but that was still up from 4.2 percent in December and 2.7 percent in January 2008.

Kauai County had the second-highest January unemployment, at 8.8 percent, versus 7.6 percent and 3.0 percent for the earlier periods.

Hawaii County was next at 8.4 percent, up from 7.2 percent in December and 3.8 percent last January.

As a whole, Maui County stood at 7.4 percent, up from 6.7 percent and 3.8 percent, respectively.

Lanai's unemployment rate in January was at 8.5 percent, up sharply from 5.3 percent last month and 4.3 percent a year ago.

The island of Maui saw a jump to 7.3 percent, from 6.6 percent in December and 2.9 percent in January 2008.