Maine’s unemployment rate for December was 7.3 percent, up from 7.2 percent in November and 7.0 percent a year ago.

About 51,400 Mainers were unemployed, up 1,600 from a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“The job situation remains terrible for many struggling families. It’s been three-and-a-half years since the end of the recession and policymakers have yet to make job creation a priority,” said Joel Johnson, a policy analyst for the Maine Center for Economic Policy. “We are still in another stratosphere compared to where we were before the recession. Unemployment has actually risen over the past year.”

The national unemployment rate was 7.8 percent in December, unchanged from November and down from 8.5 percent a year ago.

New England’s unemployment rate was 7.3 percent. Rates ranged from 5.1 percent in Vermont to 10.2 percent in Rhode Island.

Glenn Mills, director of economic research for the Maine Department of Labor’s Center for Workforce Research & Information, said monthly fluctuations in unemployment data should not be overemphasized. It is more important to look at the long term, he said. Since mid-2011, the state has seen an increase of about 5,000 to 6,000 jobs, Mills said.

Sectors such as health care, education, professional and business services, and leisure and hospitality gained jobs, while state and local government jobs, as well as manufacturing, have dropped, Mills said.

Another important measure of employment health is the rate of labor force participation, according to the state Department of Labor. That reflects the share of the population that is working or actively seeking work. Jobless people not looking for work are not considered part of the labor force and not counted as unemployed.

December marked the 63rd consecutive month in which Maine had a higher share of employed population than the nation, Mills said. Maine’s rate was 60.5 percent compared with the national rate of 58.6 percent.

The non-seasonally adjusted statewide unemployment rate was 7.3 percent in December, up from 7.0 percent a year ago. The non-seasonally adjusted rates for individual counties ranged from 5.6 percent in Cumberland Country to 10.1 percent in Hancock County.

The unemployment rate was below the statewide average in all three metro areas: 5.9 percent in the Portland, South Portland, Biddeford market; 6.8 percent in Bangor and 7.1 percent in the Lewiston-Auburn area.

Staff Writer Jessica Hall can be contacted at 791-6316 or at:

jhall@pressherald.com