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The Buffalo Niagara region’s stubbornly high unemployment rate eased a bit during March.

The local jobless rate fell to 8.5 percent last month – the lowest March rate in two years – as fewer people in the region’s shrinking labor pool counted themselves as unemployed, the state Labor Department said Tuesday.

The region’s seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate was better than the 8.8 percent jobless rate from last March.

While the jobless rates aren’t directly comparable, because they aren’t adjusted for seasonal factors, the unemployment rate was sharply lower than February’s 9.2 percent rate and January’s 9.6 percent rate.

Much of the improvement in March came from a slight drop in the region’s labor force, which shrunk by 1,600 people, or about 0.3 percent. While the number of people employed was virtually stable over the past year, about 4 percent fewer workers were classified as unemployed, leading to the decline in the overall jobless rate.

Even so, unemployment in the Buffalo Niagara region remains high by historical standards, with the 8.5 percent jobless rate ranking as the fourth-highest for any March since 1990.

The jobless rate here is slightly higher than the upstate average of 8.4 percent and is significantly higher than the downstate average of 7.9 percent. The jobless rate here also is higher than the 7.6 percent seasonally unadjusted rate nationally and the 8.1 percent rate statewide.

Among the state’s 14 major metro areas, the Buffalo Niagara region’s unemployment rate was the sixth lowest, trailing Ithaca, Albany, Poughkeepsie, Nassau-Suffolk and Putnam-Rockland-Westchester counties.

One reason why unemployment has remained persistently high is the region’s sluggish job growth, which ran at a tepid 0.3 percent pace in March as cutbacks in government jobs offset modest hiring by private-sector firms.

The Buffalo Niagara region had almost 1,000 fewer jobs last month than it did in March 2008, just as the recession was taking hold. Many of those job losses came at local factories, where displaced workers often have struggled to find a new niche in a more service-oriented economy.

On top of that, the sluggish job growth means that the local economy is failing to generate enough new jobs to make a meaningful dent in jobless levels more than three years after the recession officially ended.

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Unemployment rate falls

Buffalo Niagara region’s unemployment rate

March 8.5 %

February 9.2 %

January 9.6 %

December 8.4 %

November 7.8 %

October 7.9 %

September 8.1 %

August 8.4 %

July 8.9 %

June 8.5 %

May 8.2 %

Unemployment rates in Western New York counties

Allegany County 8.8 %

Cattaraugus County 9.3 %

Chautauqua County 8.8 %

Erie County 8.2 %

Genesee County 8.0 %

Niagara County 9.4 %

Orleans County 10.4 %

Wyoming County 9.7 %

Source: State Labor Department

email: drobinson@buffnews.com