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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, April 3, 2003

Jobless rate dips to 3%

By Sean Hao
Advertiser Staff Writer

The state's unemployment rate in February hit its lowest point in nearly 12 years as seasonal growth in government, education and healthcare improved the job market.

Additional gains in construction helped offset declines in retail trade and administrative support positions, lowering the jobless rate from 3.7 percent in January to 3 percent in February.

During February, 17,700 out of the total 576,400 workers in the state were unemployed, according to the labor department.

The 3 percent is the lowest rate for the state since July 1991, according to the Department of Labor and Industrial Relations that released the figures yesterday. The 1991 figure is not adjusted to conform with changes in the way the department calculates the jobless rate made in 1994, officials noted.

Labor experts have cautioned that the state's low jobless rate does not account for workers that have exhausted unemployment benefits or who are not actively searching for work.

Still, the 3 percent underscores the strength in the state's economy heading into the war in Iraq, which officials fear could result in layoffs as war-related fears reduce the desire to travel and hurt the tourism industry.

Hawai'i's jobless rate remained well below the countrywide average of 6.4 percent in February.

"It is encouraging to see that we continue to do better than the national unemployment rate, thanks in large part to the increase of jobs in the construction, healthcare and social assistance industries," said Nelson Befitel, the labor department's director.

"While the state has yet to see a significant impact on unemployment resulting from the conflict in Iraq, we remain cautiously optimistic that our economy has stabilized to a point that we will be able to minimize the effects of the conflict," he said.

During the first Gulf War in 1991, 4,300 jobs were lost statewide, primarily in the tourism sector. Nonetheless, apart from a spike to 3.2 percent in July, the state's jobless rate remained below 3 percent for much of that year, according to the labor department.

February's jobless rate was also well below the year-ago rate of 4.7 percent when many businesses were experiencing the after-effects of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Among the islands, Lana'i posted the lowest unemployment rate at 2.4 percent, which was down from 3.8 percent in February 2002. Honolulu's jobless rate fell to 2.7 percent from 4.4 percent in the same time period.

On the Big Island, February's jobless rate fell to 4.2 percent from 5.5 percent in the prior year, while Maui's rate dropped to 3 percent from 5.1 percent. Kaua'i's rate dropped to 3.8 percent from 6.5 percent.

Reach Sean Hao at 525-8093 or shao@honoluluadvertiser.com.