Bay State job slide gains momentum in February

Jon Chesto

Massachusetts employers shed an estimated 11,300 positions from their payrolls last month, as job losses continued at a faster-than-expected pace in a wide range of industries.

The job losses propelled the state’s unemployment rate from 7.4 percent in January to 7.8 percent in February – the state’s highest jobless rate in 16 years. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate rose to 8.1 percent last month from 7.6 percent in January.

The job losses, as reported by the state Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development, are on pace to exceed estimates released by the New England Economic Partnership in November. At the time, the group’s economists predicted that the Massachusetts economy would lose an estimated 135,000 jobs from the local labor market’s last peak in March 2008 to when a recovery is expected to begin in mid-2010.

But the state has already lost about 86,000 jobs in the past year, with most of those losses occurring in the past six months. At the current rate, the state could pass that estimate of 135,000 lost jobs by the end of the summer instead of next year as originally predicted.

“There’s a good chance we could exceed the job losses in that forecast (because) we’re losing jobs at more than twice that rate,” said Alan Clayton-Matthews, a University of Massachusetts economist. “We’re in a vicious cycle ... and who knows when we’ll reach the bottom of that vicious cycle when job losses start to slow down.”

The industries that saw big job losses in February included employment services, retail and wholesale trade and manufacturing. The education and health services sector continued to be a reliable job engine, posting modest growth last month.

The state’s hospitality industry saw a net gain in jobs last month, but it has lost thousands of jobs since this time a year ago. Meanwhile, the financial services sector survived its first month without job losses in the past year, staying essentially flat in February.

The state lost about 205,000 jobs in its previous downturn, which lasted from early 2001 through the end of 2003, Clayton-Matthews said. However, he said the state only recovered about 122,000 jobs during the last expansion from early 2004 through March 2008.

Jon Chesto may be reached atjchesto@ledger.com.