Unemployment’s ill effects

Published 5:06 pm Monday, August 11, 2008

FRANKLIN—The month of June brought bad news for those watching the area’s economic indicators, as unemployment levels spiked well above both last year’s and historical levels.

Unemployment rates in the City of Franklin and Southampton and Isle of Wight counties all rose from May to June, reaching 6.5 percent in Franklin, 5.3 percent in Southampton and 3.9 percent in Isle of Wight.

Those figures all represent steep increases in the rate since last June. For Franklin, it was a jump of 2 percent. In Southampton, the increase was 1.7 percent. The Isle of Wight rate climbed 0.9 percent

The local statistics reflect similar increases in Hampton Roads, Virginia and at the national level.

For many whose joblessness contributes to the discouraging statistics released by the Virginia Employment Commission, though, the recent bad news is just the public expression of a private nightmare they have been experiencing for months.

With a sagging economy that is slower to create new jobs, said VEC economist William F. Metzger, those who find themselves out of work often find it harder to get back to work than they normally would.

“With slower job growth now,” the VEC stated in a press release announcing June’s unemployment figures, “it just takes longer for people, once they become unemployed, to move into new jobs.”

Metzger, the chief economist with VEC’s economic information services division, said Tuesday that a variety of factors have contributed to higher unemployment.

He speculated that a slowdown in the construction industry, along with rising gas prices and the quirks of the report’s statistical reference period, all had an effect on the seasonally unadjusted figures.

“Usually June is the highest month in the year,” because of the glut of high school and college students who suddenly enter the job market, he said. Despite the fact that VEC uses the same week for its data each year, a change of just a couple of days in the date of a school’s summertime dismissal can have a sizeable impact, he said, especially in an area where there are relatively few people in the employment pool.

In such areas, he said, “A few people can cause, sometimes, a big difference in the rate.”

Perhaps more important to the rate locally, however, were layoffs that took place during the past year.

In October, ATC Panels in Isle of Wight laid off 70 to 90 employees, citing the poor condition of the U.S. housing market and the rising cost of raw materials.

The company had hoped to call those employees back to work at the beginning of the year, based on an improvement in market conditions.

Marc Kmec, ATC’s vice president of human resources, said this week that the company had restarted its local operations in February.

“We’re still not at full speed ahead,” he said. “But we’re doing everything we can to weather the storm.”

In October, the company had about 135 employees working at the plant just outside of Franklin. Today, there are about 73 on the site.

But ATC employees were not the only ones locally to be affected by layoffs during the past 12 months.

In February, 27 Hercules employees learned they would lose their jobs as a result of the sale of their unit at the plant, located off Route 671 in Southampton County.

Also in February, International Paper’s sawmill division laid off 21 employees, according to Desmond Stills, communications manager for the company’s Franklin Mill. All of those employees have been offered their jobs back since then, and nine of them accepted, he said.

Still, the jobs lost in those three actions could continue to have some effect on the unemployment rate, according to Metzger.

“You get sort of a back-up of unemployed people,” he explained.

Noting that the statistics are affected by seasonal factors including farm employment, which should “pick up rapidly in the fall,” Teresa Beale, executive director of the Franklin/Southampton Area Chamber of Commerce, said she there was no reason to panic over June’s higher unemployment numbers.

Area retailers and other business owners, she said, continue to have positive attitudes, despite frustrations caused by the lagging economy.

“Everybody is kind of holding tight, making the best of it,” she said. “Nobody is in panic mode right now.”

Even the cloud of high gas prices could have a silver lining, she said. “Perhaps people are shopping locally?”