By Burl Rolett

Although Virginia’s unemployment rate is at a three-year low, social workers say people are struggling to find work in the Rockbridge area.

The state’s unemployment rate fell to 5.8 percent in January, according to a Virginia Employment Commission report released March 13. The report marked the first time unemployment has fallen  below 6 percent in Virginia since 2009. That is well below the national rate, which was 8.3 percent for February.

But Jamie Abele of the Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services said January’s encouraging statewide numbers could be misleading.

“Things are not getting better,” she said.

Abele said the statistic fails to account for people who cannot apply for unemployment benefits or have stopped looking for work.

The employment commission uses a list of people who receive unemployment benefits to determine how many people are out of work. But unemployment benefits are good for only one year, and people fall out of the statistic when their benefits run out even if they still have not found work, Abele said.

“Once they’ve stopped receiving their benefits, they disappear,” she said. “You may still be unemployed, but they’re not counting you.”

Lexington had a 10 percent unemployment rate in December, adjusted for regularly occurring seasonal hiring and layoffs – almost 4 percentage points higher than that month’s statewide average. Lexington’s unemployment rate has been consistently high in the last few years, and the city was the third highest among all Virginia cities and counties last summer because of summer layoffs.

Last year's unemployment rates in Virginia compared to the national unemployment rate. Graph by Burl Rolett.

Jobs are available in Lexington, Rockbridge Area Department of Social Services Director Meredith Downey said, but there is a disparity between available work and education levels in the city.

“When you look at the want ads that are posted [with the employment] commission, there are pages of them,” she said. “And they are primarily jobs with the university and the hospital — very skilled labor.”

According to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service, fewer than 22 percent of Rockbridge County residents have college degrees.

Many area manufacturing jobs have disappeared in the past decade. Because of the recession, factories in Buena Vista and Goshen closed their doors, and downsizing continues to hurt the Rockbridge area, Abele said.

Downey said some unemployed laborers have been able to find work outside of traditional jobs, through small jobs like lawn mowing and babysitting. But those jobs are also beginning to disappear.

“A lot of our clients work under the table,” Downey said. “But what we’re finding now is they’re losing those jobs.”

Downey said people are less willing to pay for those services because they have less expendable income.

The social services department manages about 7,200 cases. Before 2007, it was managing about 3,500 cases at a time. Aid requests are also beginning to come in from unexpected sources.

Downey said Realtors, doctors and lawyers have applied for food stamps in the past nine months.

“We have people coming in here who have never been in social services,” she said. “They come in and say, ‘I don’t really know what you do; I just know that I need help.’”

Abele said the national economy must turn around before unemployment can fall locally. Until manual labor and factory jobs begin to pick up, Lexington will continue to suffer from high jobless rates, she said.

“We don’t have home building or construction work going on; those are the kind of things that our people do here,” she said. “I don’t think there’s anything we can do here specifically.”

Downey said she is optimistic that the economy will eventually turn around, but warns that it is not an easy fix.

“The turnaround is going to take a tremendous amount of time,” she said. “I don’t think it will happen next year.”

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