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Western Montana lags

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The persistent pains of unemployment led President Obama to introduce his American Jobs Act last week. The president spoke of sparking job creation and motivating businesses to hire veterans and unemployed workers. He called for passage of the bill "right away," reflecting the immediacy of a problem facing many Montanans right now.

Western Montana's job market is lagging. The area continues to bear some of the highest unemployment rates in the state. Its key industries—wood products and construction—are showing little to no signs of recovery. In July, the Department of Labor and Industry estimated the state's unemployment rate at 7.7 percent. Sanders County came out at the bottom of the list with an unemployment rate of 14.8 percent; Missoula, Flathead and Ravalli counties hovered near or above the state average.

"That portion of the state is certainly the portion that has been harmed worst in this recession," says state senior economist Barbara Wagner. "They started to experience job losses the earliest...and they have been slower to recover."

Obama hopes to get the long-term unemployed back to work, but he isn't getting any help. According to the National Employment Law Project, a host of employment ads excluding unemployed applicants have popped up on websites such as Monster.com and Indeed.com since last summer. Among the employers requiring that applicants "must be currently employed" were Allstate Insurance, an Italian restaurant chain in Chicago and the University of Arizona.

"NELP's snapshot of jobs postings identified more than 150 ads that included exclusions based on current employment status," the organization's August report states, "including 125 ads that identified specific companies by name."

The Indy found no such discrimination in job ads in Montana. Wagner has not noted the trend. But the exclusionary practice is completely legal in this and most other states. The Fair Employment Act of 2011—introduced in Congress this July—seeks to change that, as does the president's American Jobs Act.

Wagner recognizes some signs of recovery in Montana. She says the healthcare industry has experienced job gains throughout the recession, and portions of eastern Montana are experiencing growth due to increased oil and natural gas development. Western Montana, however, continues to demonstrate the problems spurring politicians to negotiate a fix—if there is one.

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