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Jobless rate in region falls to 5.7% amid growth streak

Unemployment in the Buffalo Niagara region fell sharply in December from a year ago, and the statewide rate fell to its lowest level in more than six years, as continuing growth in new jobs allowed more people to find work.

The jobless rate for Erie and Niagara counties fell nearly by a point, to 5.7 percent, from 6.5 percent in December 2013. That makes the fourth straight month that unemployment locally has been below 6 percent, according to the state Department of Labor. And it’s the lowest for December since the region posted a 5.5 percent rate in 2007 – before the Great Recession.

Overall, 31,000 workers – 24,200 of them in Erie County – lacked jobs last month, down by 5,800, or 16 percent, from the same period a year earlier.

“This is a continuation of what we have seen,” said John Slenker, regional economist in Buffalo for the state Department of Labor. “It’s been steadily decreasing all year. This reflects a lot of the improvement we’ve seen in the job count.”

The state previously reported that the total number of jobs in the Buffalo-Niagara Falls metropolitan area rose by just under 1 percent, to 558,400. That’s the highest job count for December since 2000, and the third-highest for the month since the data series began in 1990.

And it’s likely to continue, he said, although he wouldn’t make specific projections. “We’re at the end of January, and through January, we haven’t had any major shocks to the economy,” he said. “The price of oil keeps dropping. And there’s a lot of projects that are going to be happening this year. We had a lot of good news last year. We had an improving economy, and now those announcements are going to start having an impact on the area.”

However, the total number of people employed in the two-county area – whether the job is inside or outside of Erie and Niagara counties – dropped by 1.6 percent, to 518,100. And that’s been a steady trend since the recession began.

Slenker said it’s unlikely that people are dropping out of the labor market because they’re discouraged. So it’s probably some combination of demographics and an aging workforce, changes in the local industry makeup, skills mismatch and undercounting of how many people are employed.

The two figures are calculated using different methods, with the unemployment rate based on the Current Population Survey of 3,100 households each month and the private-sector job count based on a payroll survey of 18,000 employers conducted by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“We have been looking into this – the drop in the labor force – for a while,” he said. “We still haven’t been able to pin down exactly what’s going on.”

The unemployment rate for Erie County fell to 5.5 percent, while Niagara County’s figure was 6.4 percent, but both dropped by 0.9 points. For the City of Buffalo, the rate dropped to 6.7 percent, from 8.1 percent a year ago, while Niagara Falls’ rate fell to 7.9 percent, from 9.1 percent.

Even more significantly, the statewide unemployment rate of 5.8 percent fell to its lowest level since September 2008, just as Lehman Brothers’ plunge into bankruptcy triggered the worldwide financial crisis. The private-sector job count statewide rose by 114,200 to an all-time high of 7.64 million.

At 5.7 percent, the Buffalo Niagara rate was lower than Binghamton, Glens Falls, Utica-Rome and New York City, but higher than the Capital District, Ithaca, Kingston, Poughkeepsie-Newburgh-Middletown, the New York City suburbs and Rochester. It was tied with Elmira and Syracuse. Ithaca’s Tompkins County had the lowest rate at 3.5 percent.

Among other Western New York counties, Allegany posted 5.9 percent, Cattaraugus was at 6.2 percent, Chautauqua at 6.4 percent, Genesee at 5.6 percent, Orleans at 7.1 percent and Wyoming at 6.5 percent.