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updated: 4/19/2013 10:10 AM

Illinois unemployment holds at 9.5 percent

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Associated Press

Unemployment leveled off in Illinois in March at 9.5 percent, the Department of Employment Security said Thursday, leaving the state with one of the highest unemployment rates in the country and 629,000 people looking for work.

Job losses were widespread across a range of different types of employers, and indicated that two previous months of increases weren't a fluke, one economist said.

The state unemployment rate remains well above the 7.6 percent national rate, which dropped last month. And, while March rates for all 50 states were not yet available from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the 9.5 percent jobless rate for February meant Illinois had higher unemployment than all but three other U.S. states.

Jay Rowell, the director of the Department of Employment Security, said the state has still shown job growth this year, pointing to the average of gain of 1,100 jobs each month this year.

"Economic uncertainty nationally and abroad dampened our country's job growth. When that happens, Illinois' share tends to be a negative number," department Director Jay Rowell said in a printed news release. "Monthly snapshots capture a moment in time. When those moments are evaluated together, we see progress away from a global recession and through a stubborn economic growth cycle marked by volatile swings in monthly data here and across our country."

But the state lost a net 17,800 jobs in March, and the losses were widespread, occurring at a range of different types of employers.

The trade, transportation and utilities sector lost 9,000 jobs, professional and business services firms shed 5,800 jobs, leisure and hospitality businesses cut a net 4,900 jobs, and positions at construction companies were down 1,300 for the month.

The bright spot was educational and health services firms, which added a net 2,900 jobs.

University of Illinois economist Fred Giertz said the report was disappointing.

"Not just because it's high, but the hope was that last month was kind of an anomaly," he said. "It's stayed there for two months in a row. We're kind of losing our connection with the national economy."

Local-level unemployment figures for March won't be available until later this month, but so far this year unemployment has remained stubbornly high in some downstate and rural areas. And more people could soon be heading to unemployment lines in some particularly hard-hit places in Illinois. Caterpillar Inc. said earlier this month that it will soon lay off about 460 people in Decatur. The town has the highest unemployment rate of any Illinois metro area, 13.7 percent.

The Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity announced Thursday that it's providing a package of $4.4 million in incentives, including $3.2 million in tax breaks, to a company with plans to expand in one such area, Edgar County. The unemployment rate in the eastern Illinois county was 11.4 percent in February.

North American Lighting Inc. plans to add 300 jobs at its plant in Paris. The auto parts maker has about 870 employees there.

Adam Pollet, who is acting director of the Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, said working in high-unemployment areas is a point of emphasis for the agency.

He said the department had kept in touch with the company since it moved its headquarters to Paris several years ago, which he said is "a perfect example of making sure we are talking to as many of companies as possible to find out how and when we can help them expand."

Tax breaks are one tool, he said, but the department can also help find money to pay for needed infrastructure such as a rail spur.

Pollet said he isn't particularly worried about another potential threat to Illinois employment picture, Texas Gov. Rick Perry's plan to try to lure companies away from the state with an ad campaign and visit next week.

That visit, Pollet said, is little more than a distraction.

"That's not an economic development strategy," he said of Perry's pitch. "That doesn't result in job gains."

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