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Buffalo Niagara has lowest December jobless rate in 9 years

The Buffalo Niagara region’s unemployment rate held steady in December at 4.9 percent, finishing last year at the lowest level in nine years, the state Labor Department reported Tuesday.

The local unemployment rate has stayed below 5 percent for three straight months as the region continues to add jobs at a moderate pace that, nevertheless, is the strongest uptick in hiring since 1999.

The unemployment rate was the lowest for any December since 2006, before the Great Recession began, and the second-lowest for any month since the beginning of 2008.

Over the last year, the unemployment rate has dropped from 5.7 percent in December 2014 and has declined steadily for more than 3½ years since joblessness peaked at 9.4 percent in February 2012, the Labor Department reported.

The local unemployment rate first fell below 6 percent in September 2014 and dipped as low as 5.4 percent in October 2014 before rising during the winter as seasonal jobs disappeared. The jobless rate fell below 6 percent again in March and steadily inched lower throughout the spring and summer. The unemployment rate in November and December was slightly higher than October’s 4.8 percent rate.

“This has been a very good year, as far as unemployment rates go,” said John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo.

But the streak of sub-5 percent unemployment rates is likely to end, at least for a few months. It is normal for joblessness to rise as winter settles in and holiday-related seasonal jobs come to an end. Over the past six years, the local unemployment rate has jumped by an average of just under 1 percentage point from December to January, which would put January’s jobless rate in the upper-5 percent range if the pattern holds.

In December, however, a strengthening job market continued to keep unemployment low. With big building projects, from SolarCity to the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, fueling a hiring boom for construction workers, the region’s job growth last year ran at an average pace of 1.6 percent, more than double the rate of hiring during 2014 and nearly three times stronger than the employment gains during both 2012 and 2013.

The number of people who were employed in Buffalo Niagara in December grew by nearly 4 percent in the last year – to the highest level for any December since 2008. About 18,500 more people were employed in the Buffalo Niagara region last month than in December 2014.

With the pace of hiring this year running at more than double the 2014 pace, the number of people who were actively looking for work but couldn’t find it tumbled by 10 percent in the last year to its lowest level for any December since 2006, before the recession began battering the local job market.

Among New York’s 15 metropolitan areas listed by the state, the unemployment rate in Buffalo Niagara was the ninth-lowest. The unemployment rates were higher in New York City, Watertown-Fort Drum, Elmira, Glens Falls and Binghamton.