After ratcheting up to a 26-year high, Maryland's unemployment rate appears to have stabilized, a hopeful sign for the more than 200,000 residents looking for work.
That's the picture emerging from U.S. Labor Department estimates released Friday, preliminary numbers that offer a glimpse at how the economy is affecting businesses and workers. The unemployment rate was 7.2 percent last month and has been since May, ending a stretch of rapid increases through much of the past year.
Meanwhile, new claims for jobless benefits are dropping, the state said.
Last week, "we took just slightly over 5,600," said Thomas S. Wendel, who runs Maryland's unemployment insurance program. That's down slightly from the week before and significantly so from two months earlier, when new claims topped 8,700. "It's the lowest week in a year, so that's good news," he said.
But it's not a clear turnaround yet. Maryland has about 65,000 fewer jobs than it did a year ago, and businesses still appeared to be cutting last month.
Exactly how much is impossible to say, because government analysts are finding it especially difficult this year to adjust the numbers for seasonal variations and allow for month-to-month comparisons. The Labor Department's best estimate is that employers shed 12,000 jobs in August. Its revised estimate for July suggests a 6,800-job gain.
"Just as we're seeing an easing in the national picture right now in terms of job losses, I think we're seeing the same thing here in Maryland," said Andy Bauer, regional economist for the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond's Baltimore office.
The U.S. unemployment rate was 9.7 percent last month. Employers cut 216,000 jobs, the smallest monthly decline in a year.
Maryland's job market has held up better than most of the country - 35 states and the District of Columbia have higher unemployment rates, including Michigan at more than 15 percent. But it's the worst time in a generation to be looking for a job. Maryland's unemployment rate last topped 7 percent in 1983.
The national recession officially started at the end of 2007, but it took longer for many Marylanders to feel it in layoffs. A year ago, unemployment was 4.5 percent - pretty low. Things quickly went south in the fall, as financial-firm meltdowns rippled across the country.
This week, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben S. Bernanke said the recession is probably over. But he warned an audience at an event put on by the Brookings Institution in Washington that "it's still going to feel like a very weak economy for some time." When U.S. businesses start adding jobs again, he said, they might expand only enough to keep up with the growth in working-age adults and not enough to reduce the ranks of the unemployed.
"Many people will still find that their job security and their employment status is not what they wish it was," Bernanke said.
That's true of Baltimore County resident Louis Gagliano, who lost a business analyst position nearly a year ago during companywide layoffs. Nothing suggests to him that the recession is over. If anything, he said, the economy seems to be getting worse.
"I haven't had many interviews, and the interviews that I have had were such that, 'Oh, we're thinking if we're able to grow, you would be our guy,' " said Gagliano, 53, who has a master's degree in information technology and another in project management. "I've heard that four different times from four different companies. ... So the job search is frustrating. The economy is frustrating."
He feels fortunate that his wife is employed and that he's still eligible for jobless benefits. Marylanders normally can't draw any more benefits after 26 weeks - about 6 1/2 months - but federal extensions have temporarily raised the maximum to nearly 15 months. Still, that's no replacement for his salary. Both he and his family have had to adjust.
"My daughter went to a very fine private school, and of course we had to take her out," Gagliano said.
As unemployment drags on for more people, some are giving up the job search in despair or to go back to school. That means they're out of the labor force - the pool of people working or looking - and aren't being counted as unemployed anymore. That trend could be at work in Maryland, which saw its labor force shrink by nearly 50,000 people in the past year.
"In this particular recession, ... it's just more difficult for people to re-enter into the labor market once they've lost their job," said Bauer, the Federal Reserve economist.
But he's hearing more optimism in the monthly surveys the Fed conducts of Maryland businesses. Their expectations for growth in the next six months have risen.
"Hopefully, that will translate into a stronger labor market," Bauer said.