State unemployment at lowest level since 2008

A drop in unemployment insurance claims in Kansas may signal that labor markets are starting to turn around.

The number of people on unemployment insurance in Kansas fell to 35,600 for the week ending May 15.

With a similar total the week before, the number of people receiving unemployment has fallen to its lowest level since December 2008.

That compares to nearly 60,000 in early January.

That helped drive down the state's unemployment rate to 6.3 percent in April from 6.9 percent in March.

A drop in new claims for unemployment insurance is part of the reason for the overall decline. Since February, the number of new people seeking unemployment insurance each week has fallen below 4,000 — that signals that layoffs have eased up considerably.

Even more encouraging, the amount of hiring has picked up slightly since April, particularly in construction in the Kansas City area and in rural areas, as well as in the business and professional services sector.

The job creation numbers suggest the Kansas labor markets may be starting to turn around, but Kansas Department of Labor economist Tyler Tenbrink remains cautious.

"It's only one month, and we don't know what's going to happen with May, yet."

But the drop in overall unemployment claims also has a gloomier source: Many people have run out of benefits.

Those who qualify for benefits receive at least 26 weeks, but in Kansas some workers can qualify for up to 86 weeks.

Now, the long-term unemployed are about to get a jolt.

After much debate, the U.S. Senate recessed Friday without voting on a measure to extend jobless benefits that run out June 2. It will mean the end of benefits for 1.2 million people nationwide.

The Senate will reconvene June 7. The House has already approved a bill.

Extending those benefits makes sense as economic stimulus, as well as being the right thing to do, said Heidi Shierholz, an economist with the Economic Policy Institute.

And, in this recession, she said, there's no blaming the unemployed for their predicament.

"The problem here is that there are no jobs," she said. "It's a macroeconomic problem — there is less demand for goods and services — not a 'what's wrong with these workers?' problem."