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Figures released by the state Labor Department Thursday showing a sharp increase in unemployment in Erie and Niagara counties in April were met with skepticism by the state's own economists here.

The figures say unemployment soared to 6.6 percent in April from 5.7 a month before and 4.2 a year ago.

But Ronald H. Scrace, senior economist in the Buffalo office of the state Labor Department, blamed the unexpected increase on a change by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics in the number of households surveyed.

The number of persons filing unemployment claims in the area actually declined by 2,000 last month, from 16,400 in March to 14,400 in April. Surveys of local employers found that more persons were holding jobs here than in any other April. That data is part of the information from which the monthly unemployment estimates are determined.

Scrace believes that the statewide household survey that determines the state unemployment rate was responsible for Albany upping the unemployment rates on the Niagara Frontier.

"There is no justification for the increase," he said bluntly. "The only time since the present series began in 1974 that unemployment increased in April was in 1980 and that was a recession year."

The federal survey helps set the unemployment rate in the state. Albany then determines the local rates from the study and from material fed to it from area state economists.

Statewide, the unemployment rate went up to 5.6 percent in April from 4.6 percent in March and 3.4 percent a year ago. The comparable national rate in April was 5.1 percent.

The total number of jobs in Erie and Niagara counties rose by 3,000 to 527,600, the highest April level ever, according to Scrace's figures.

However, the rate of growth was the smallest since 1985, an indication that the local economy is slowing. Jobs grew by 4,600 in March.

The state's estimates say the number of unemployed on the Niagara Frontier grew to 38,000, an increase of 6,000 since March. It reported 23,100 area persons were jobless a year ago.

Most of the April employment increase here was in construction, where 1,700 jobs were added as building projects sprouted like dandelions in the warmer weather. Spring also was responsible for an added 700 jobs in the building supply industry.

The number of jobs in the service industry was also up by 700 to 134,000, the highest April level ever. Manufacturing also added 300 jobs to a total of 100,900. The 30,900 persons working in the finance, insurance and real estate fields -- 200 more than in March -- was the highest ever for any month.

The number of jobs in retail outlets grew by 1,000, of which 600 were in restaurants. Many of the job gains were offset by a temporary drop of 1,500 persons employed in education, a statistical blip caused by spring vacations.

The newest unemployment figures put the Niagara Frontier in second place on the list of the state's highest unemployment rates among metropolitan communities.

Topping the list again was Glens Falls with 7.2 percent. Poughkeepsie continued to have the lowest rate -- 3.8 percent. The rate in the New York City metropolitan area was 5.7 percent; it was 4.6 percent in Rochester.

Among counties, the unemployment rate in Erie County last month -- 6.6 percent -- was up sharply from 5.7 percent in March and 4.2 percent a year ago.

Niagara County had a 8.3 percent rate, (6,700 unemployed), compared to 7.1 percent in March when 8,800 were unemployed. In April 1988, the Niagara County jobless rate was 5.4 percent.

The City of Buffalo had a 9.3 percent unemployment rate in April. It was 8 percent in March and 6 percent a year ago. The Niagara Falls rate was 8.8 in April, 7.6 in March and 5.7 a year ago.

In other Western New York counties the April rates and the comparable March and year-ago April rates were:

Allegany County -- 7.8 percent in April, 7 in March and 4.8 percent in April 1987.

Cattaraugus -- 8.5, 7.4 and 4.9.

Chautauqua -- 6.8, 6.4 and 4.1.

Genesee -- 6.8, 6.4 and 5.

Orleans -- 7.6, 6.7 and 5.5

Wyoming -- 7.6, 7.4 and 5.3.

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