WASHINGTON — State unemployment rates stabilized last month, reflecting a broader nationwide trend, according to a Labor Department report Friday. Sixteen states said their jobless rate was unchanged in February, seven reported declines and 27 – including Maine – reported increases.

That’s an improvement from January, when 30 states saw their rates rise, and much better than December, when joblessness rose in 43 states.

The nationwide unemployment rate was 9.7 percent in February, the same as the previous month. Layoffs are slowing as the economy is recovering, and there are signs that employers are stepping up hiring.

The economy is likely to generate more than 150,000 new jobs this month, according to a survey of economists by Thomson Reuters. The national figures for March will be released next Friday. The jobless rate is forecast to remain at 9.7 percent.

These “readings are consistent with labor markets beginning to show some stability,” said Donald Schunk, an economist at Coastal Carolina University near Myrtle Beach, S.C.

But Schunk and other economists said there are still few signs of widespread, consistent job growth. Twenty-seven states reported a decline in total jobs, the Labor Department said, while 23 said jobs increased.

The biggest drops in employment were in Virginia, which lost 32,600 jobs; California, which shed 20,400; and Michigan and Pennsylvania, which each lost 16,000.

Virginia officials blamed at least part of the drop on last month’s East Coast snowstorms. The Virginia Employment Commission noted that the construction industry shed 9,000 jobs in February, many more than in February 2009.

In Maine, unemployment ticked up last month to 8.3 percent, according to Labor Commissioner Laura Fortman.

Fortman said Friday that February’s jobless rate is up from 8.2 percent in January and 7.7 percent in February 2009.

Fortman said that despite the unemployment increase, Maine’s employment picture is starting to improve, with hundreds of individuals re-entering the labor force in the last three months. The rise in the unemployment rate shows that more people are looking for work.

Jobless rates statewide ranged from a low of 7.3 percent in Cumberland County to 13.6 percent in Washington County. Over the last year, the largest rises in the unemployment rates were in Waldo and York counties.

Four states, meanwhile, reached record-high unemployment rates: Nevada at 13.2 percent; Florida, at 12.2 percent; North Carolina at 11.2 percent and Georgia at 10.5 percent.


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