Washington's unemployment rate edged up to 6.4 percent in November, driven by job losses in the retail and construction sectors.

Share story

Shops usually staff up for the winter holidays, the Super Bowl of the retail world. But this year, in the face of a protracted recession, Nordstrom has been running a tight ship.

The Seattle company said it has limited its hiring to regular, year-round positions and has taken “very few temps.”

“Due to the economic downturn and the resulting lower sales, we needed fewer people,” said spokeswoman Brooke White. “We also want our regular employees to make as much as possible during these difficult times.”

Similar caution at other companies is weighing heavily on the state jobs picture. The state Employment Security Department said Tuesday that about 4,000 retail jobs were lost in November, contributing to a decline of 11,700 in total jobs.

The state’s unemployment rate rose slightly — to 6.4 percent in November from 6.3 in October. It’s still lower than the national figure, which stood at 6.7 percent.

In the Seattle-Bellevue-Everett area, the unemployment rate rose to 5.4 percent last month from 5.3 percent in October.

The retail sector was second only to construction in terms of job losses — an ill omen at a time when employers in that sector normally expand.

“It’s a real sign of the worries that consumers have over the state of the economy,” said Jan Teague, president of the Washington Retail Association.

Mary Ayala, chief economist of the Employment Security Department, said Washington is doing “slightly better” than the rest of the country, thanks to its high proportion of service jobs compared with the manufacturing sector, which has been battered nationwide.

More layoffs coming

But recent layoff announcements at companies like truck maker Paccar and Washington Mutual still haven’t made it to the statistics, and employers are readying for a downturn.

“We’re seeing employers acting much more hesitantly before adding staff,” said Kerry Kiley, regional operations manager of staffing company Adecco for Western Washington and Northern California.

The local job market hasn’t been hit as hard as California, but “it does look like we’re starting to catch up in the last month or two,” Kiley said.

Many new job seekers come from the hard-hit financial-services and construction industries, she said.

Spending slowdown

Construction, a sector that’s at the epicenter of the current crisis, lost 4,800 jobs in November. Some 20,900 jobs have disappeared in that sector since the previous November — a 10 percent drop.

The service sector showed an overall year-over-year gain in jobs. Health services grew by 11,400 jobs, and software publishing firms added 4,000 workers.

However, administrative-support services lost 10,900 jobs, financial services lost 4,000 jobs, and retail saw a big drop — 8,700 jobs, or 2.6 percent.

The drop in retail jobs is due to waning sales, as consumers reacted to economic turmoil. Nordstrom recently reported an 11.1 percent drop in sales at stores open at least a year for the three months ended Nov. 1, contributing to a 57 percent decline in its third-quarter profit.

Michele Manasse, who owns five Fireworks gift shops in the Seattle area, said she has pared back her payroll 30 percent from a year ago.

Her shops still add employees for the holidays, she said, but additional workers no longer were needed in shipping and receiving after a sudden drop-off in sales this fall.

“We didn’t receive any more merchandise after September,” she said. “And we’re quite overstocked.

“We’ve never put anything on sale before Christmas,” she added. “Now, items we’re overstocked on are marked down anywhere from 20 percent to 50 percent.”

Auto sales have also done poorly. In addition, the gradual stalling of the home-building industry has hit retailers that sell products for new homes. “That market is literally sitting on their hands,” said Teague, of the retail association.

Grocery stores are holding up better than other retailers. “People continue to go to the store — in fact, they may do that instead of going to restaurants,” Teague said.

Ayala said she expects Tuesday’s reduction in the federal funds target rate, combined with the Obama administration’s proposed stimulus package, will be able to restart the economic engine.

“Hopefully the quicker that happens, the more jobs will be created in Washington,” she said.

Ángel González: 206-515-5644 or agonzalez@seattletimes.com