Wash. unemployment rate drops to 8.2 percent

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) The state's unemployment rate dropped to 8.2 percent last month, an improvement that will likely shorten the number of weeks people can receive unemployment benefits.

The new rate for February was down from a revised rate of 8.4 percent in January, the state's Employment Security Department announced Wednesday. February's jobless rate was the lowest since January 2009, when it was 7.7 percent.

Officials said that as a result of the improvement, the maximum weeks of unemployment benefits will likely be reduced from 99 to 73 in April because federal benefits-extension programs are triggered by states' unemployment rates.

The state added an estimated 4,200 jobs from January to February, federal numbers show. The state saw a total gain of 54,900 jobs from February 2011 to February 2012. The state has added jobs four months in a row, and in 17 of the past 18 months, officials said.

Dave Wallace, a department economist, said the state's February numbers were "in line with what we're seeing at the national level."

"It's not a champagne, popping the cork kind of thing, but it's a continuation of a trend," he said.

Industries that had the most job growth in Washington last month included leisure and hospitality, construction and retail trade. Leisure and hospitality led all sectors with 2,500 jobs added. Industries that saw the most job losses included government, manufacturing, and financial services. Government lost more jobs than any other sector, down about 1,400.

An estimated 288,000 people in Washington were unemployed and looking for work last month, and about 197,000 claimed unemployment benefits. State officials said that as of last Saturday, more than 76,000 workers in the state had exhausted all unemployment benefits.

The highest unemployment rate in February was 14.9 percent in Ferry County in the northeast. Whitman County in the east, home to Washington State University, had the lowest rate at 5.8 percent. King County, the state's largest county, was at 7.4 percent.

The national unemployment rate for February was 8.3 percent.