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Three states offer hope on unemployment

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Rick Bowmer/AP/File

(Read caption) In June, when Deborah Clark was looking for a job at WorkSource Oregon in Hillsboro, the state's unemployment rate had reached a record high. Now, the jobless rate is falling slowly.

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Fewer North Carolina workers applied for jobless benefits two weeks ago than at any time in a year. Unemployed Oregonians filed the second-fewest claims of any week this year, according to data released Thursday by the US Department of Labor. Georgia saw the third-lowest total of any week this year.

All three states have borne the brunt of the "great recession." Their unemployment rates have moved above the national average. Now, in sharp contrast with the overall US employment outlook, their jobless rates are falling.

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One of the most encouraging scenarios is taking place in North Carolina. Its unemployment rate has fallen from 11.1 percent in May to 10.8 percent in September. Two weeks ago (the latest data available), 15,852 North Carolinians signed up for first-time unemployment benefits, the lowest total in a year. The four-week average (which helps to smooth out the inevitable weekly fluctuation) is also down slightly from the end of September.

This doesn't necessarily mean that employment will grow. (This is typically the low period of the year for jobless claims.) But it does suggest that unemployment isn't getting worse, which is better than the rise in unemployment that's expected nationally.

"Things have evened out," says Larry Parker, spokesman for the Employment Security Commission of North Carolina. Some companies are hiring. Others are still announcing layoffs. Last month, employment rose in construction but fell in the normally steady category of education and healthcare.

Manufacturing, which has lost nearly 70,000 jobs in North Carolina in the past year, only lost 700 positions in September.

These plus-and-minus scenarios are typical of tipping points in the economy. For some states' labor markets, that tipping point may have already arrived.

In Oregon, the unemployment rate is down from its 12.2 percent peak in May to 11.5 percent in September; Georgia's is down from a 10.3 percent peak to 10.1 percent. More improvement could come in fits and starts. But it's beginning to look as though some states have put the worst of their labor woes behind them.