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March unemployment claims climb 126 percent

By Johnny Jackson

jjackson@henryherald.com

Area residents are still taking their lumps from a slumping economy.

"I'm very stretched right now," said Hampton resident Tim Baxter.

At 54, the college-educated man is trying to make ends meet with two part-time jobs - one as a salesman for a local appliance store and the other as a delivery person for a regional publication - that he would have worked in high school more than 35 years ago.

Baxter and his wife Trina, who works full time with a government agency, have been pinching pennies for the past two years.

Baxter said he lost his job in May 2007 as the vice president of operations for a local building company, and has been trying to recover ever since by taking part-time jobs in truck driving and merchandising. Now, he has a 65-mile route delivering newspapers each morning from midnight to 3 a.m.

On Thursday, the Georgia Department of Labor announced nearly 100,000 other Georgians joined the ranks of the unemployed in March. There were 96,306 laid-off workers who filed first-time claims for state unemployment insurance benefits last month, an increase of more than 126 percent from March 2008.

Metro Atlanta claims rose to 37,721, or by 117 percent, from a year ago.

Most of Georgia's initial claims were filed by laid-off workers in manufacturing, trade, construction, and administrative and support services, the labor department said.

Baxter said he believes the construction industry that thrived for so long locally may not be what it was when, or if, the economy turns around.

"I don't know if it will ever come back like it was before," Baxter said. "When the economy started going down, they started down-sizing. I'd been in that field for 30-plus years. I look every day for something in either construction sales or construction itself."

He has participated in two interviews, so far this year, dealing with construction and construction material sales. He said, however, that employers are increasingly hesitant about filling even existing positions.

"It's like the more time goes on, the more they think about whether they need to fill positions," he said. "I guess they figure they can save money by not filling the positions."

Statewide, the number of jobless workers receiving unemployment insurance benefits rose 133 percent over the year, from 74,294 in March 2008 to 172,947 in March 2009, labor officials said Thursday.

The Labor Department also processed 20,740 first-time claims for Emergency Unemployment Compensation benefits in March, which brought the total number of claims to 161,997 since the federal program began in Georgia in July 2008.

Federal extended benefits are available to eligible jobless workers who have exhausted regular state unemployment compensation while they are searching for jobs.

State Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond urged job-seekers to continue to look for work and explore training and education opportunities available through the state's re-employment services.

"There's a lot of opportunity for home sales and home growth in Henry County, but I believe the banks are tightening up so much right now that even an established home-builder would have trouble," Baxter said. "I'll have to work way past 65 or 67 to build back up what I've lost over the past two years."

Baxter said he searches each day for opportunities to attend job fairs and sifts through job boards to find jobs related to the construction industry. He said he would work in the industry for what he is paid now as a part-time sales representative just to get his foot in the door.

"I'm interested in getting back into my profession," he said. "But you do what you've got to do. I hope the economy would make its turnaround as quick as possible. The biggest thing is, you've got to get people back to work."

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On the net:

Georgia Department of Labor:

www.dol.state.ga.us