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Local unemployment drops to 5.5 percent in February

The Buffalo Niagara job market is getting tighter.

The region’s unemployment rate fell to 5.5 percent during February, the lowest February unemployment in 15 years.

The number of people who were employed during February increased by 9,700 people, or just under 2 percent, over the past year – a sign that local employers have stepped up their hiring. That’s backed up by another Labor Department report, released last week, that showed the region added jobs at a 0.8 percent annual pace over the past year.

While hiring has increased, workers are having an easier time finding a job. The number of unemployed people who are actively looking for a job fell by 5,600 during February – a nearly 16 percent drop that left the region’s pool of unemployed workers at its lowest level for any February since 2001, according to data released Tuesday by the state Labor Department.

“That’s a massive improvement,” said John Slenker, the Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo. “This is a good job market right now.”

Despite the improvement, jobless levels in the Buffalo Niagara region still are higher than they are across the state and nationally. Unemployment for all of New York fell to 5.4 percent during February, while the U.S. unemployment rate stood at 5.2 percent.

The local unemployment report included several positive signs.

Over the past year, the local jobless rate has dropped by a full percentage point, from 6.5 percent in February 2015, and has fallen steadily over the past four years after unemployment hit its post-recession peak of 9.4 percent in February 2012. January’s unemployment rate, initially reported to be 5.7 percent, also was revised downward to 5.6 percent.

Since the job market bottomed out four years ago, the region has trimmed its pool of unemployed workers by more than 23,000. Only twice during the past 26 years has there been a February with fewer unemployed people than there is now in the Buffalo Niagara region. “This is a pretty good time to be looking for a job,” Slenker said. “We’ve had a tightening of the labor market.”

But Frederick Floss, a SUNY Buffalo State economist, said the local job market still has ample room to handle further hiring, especially since overall participation in the labor pool is still near 40-year lows. That provides a stable of potential workers who could ease potential labor shortages in the future if they decide to return to the work force.

“Things look healthy,” Floss said. “There’s still room to grow because there’s still a body of people who haven’t decided to come back yet.”

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, Utica, Watertown, Elmira, Glens Falls and Binghamton.