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March rate reaches 26-year high

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COLUMBIA --- South Carolina's unemployment rate rose for the 13th consecutive month in March to 11.4 percent, tying a 26-year record, the state Employment Security Commission said Friday.

March's rate was up from a revised 10.9 percent in February and well above the national rate of 8.5 percent. But South Carolina fell from second to third in the nation, now trailing Michigan at 12.6 percent and Oregon at 12.1 percent.

Job-seeker Renee Harney, 33, said the Columbia unemployment office she frequents is as full as she has ever seen it. She said she's been out of work since she was let go in September from a job teaching coping skills to recovering drug addicts and has stopped being picky about where she applies.

"I've applied to UPS and I've applied to Burger King. I fall in that Catch-22. I'm overqualified for Burger King, but I'm unqualified for anything that pays well," said Ms. Harney, who has considered going back to school but thinks it's too expensive.

She said she is existing solely on her unemployment benefits, which run out in a few months. After that? "It's the blood bank, I guess. My family is in just as bad shape as me."

South Carolina's unemployment rate was 5.7 percent in February 2008, when the 13 months of increases began. Since then, the number of unemployed workers in the state has more than doubled to about 248,600 in March, an increase of about 10,000 workers from the month before, according to the commission.

"One of the things we've learned over the last 12 months, unfortunately, is the more pessimistic you've been, the more accurate you've been," Coastal Carolina University economist Don Schunk said.

The only other time unemployment was this high in South Carolina was January 1983. During that recession, the unemployment rate stayed over 10 percent for 15 months.

There was some good news in Friday's report: The number of jobs in hospitality and leisure, health and education increased in March. But that was offset by continuing declines in construction and agricultural jobs, the commission said.

The number of people working or looking for a job in South Carolina dropped by about 4,000 people to 2,185,500.

The outlook for the rest of 2009 isn't good, said Mr. Schunk, who expects the jobless rate to peak at 14 percent to 15 percent by the end of the year. Even if the economy is improving by then, he doesn't expect the rate to fall as fast as it climbed.

"Businesses will be very cautious about hiring back large numbers of workers. They are going to wait and see if the recovery is real," Mr. Schunk said. "And the people who have completely given up on finding a job will come out of the woodwork."

HIGHEST RATE

Allendale County continued to have South Carolina's highest unemployment rate in March at 22.3 percent, but that was down one percentage point from February. Three other counties -- Marion, Chester and Union -- had rates of 20 percent or above.

Lexington County had the lowest rate at 7.9 percent.


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