Friday PM January 19th, 2007

Texas records lowest level of unemployment in five years...Houston Town & Country Hospital closes, laying off nearly 300 employees...330 jobs cut in the Houston office of Aon Corporation...

The state unemployment rate fell to 4.5 percent in December—its lowest level in five years--as fewer Texans were officially listed as jobless. The Texas Workforce Commission reported that the rate fell from 4.7 percent in November. Both rates were calculated using figures that were adjusted for seasonal trends in hiring and firing. Most economists believe that gives a better picture of the job market. The agency didn't release information about unemployment in local areas. A spokeswoman blamed inclement weather in Austin earlier in the week, which delayed gathering local and industry-specific information. The agency said it would release local market information early next week. The Texas jobless rate for December was consistent with the national jobless rate of 4.5 percent. Nationwide, employers added an estimated 167,000 people to payrolls in December. If the Texas Workforce Commission's estimates are accurate, the state would have accounted for about one-fourth of that increase. Many economists predict the national jobless rate will rise this year and average around 4.9 percent, citing evidence that the economy is losing momentum.

Demand for talent in the labor market is at the point where increased pay, benefit and job-perk offers are becoming commonplace. The latest Challenger Job Market Index shows 92 percent of those finding new positions last year won equivalent or better salaries, benefits and titles. It's the highest annual percentage since 1997. The labor market is especially tight for skilled, professional workers. Those with a four-year college degree are enjoying an unemployment rate of just under two percent, while in management and professional occupations the rate is just over two percent.


The Houston Town & Country Hospital has closed, laying off nearly 300 employees. Facility operator Leaf on a Tree told the Texas Workforce Commission the hospital permanently closed on January 15th, with 268 or the 298 facility employees let go. That includes 56 nurses, plus food service workers, secretaries and technicians. Another 30 employees will remain through March 10th to wind down operations. Memorial Hermann Healthcare system is purchasing the land and buildings on the 26-acre campus on Business Center Drive.


Some 330 jobs are being cut in the Houston office of insurance brokerage Aon Corporation, according to the EM>Houston Chronicle, as part of a larger cost-cutting plan. About 550 "back-office" jobs are being cut by year's end, including positions in Owings Mills, Maryland, and in New York. That's about one percent of Chicago-based Aon's workforce. Indian outsourcing firm GenPact is taking over certain duties.


A new study finds cancer risks are greater for children who live close to the Houston Ship Channel and adjacent industrial plants. The 18-month study examined Harris County cancer cases from 1995 to 2003 and emissions including 1,3-butadiene and benzene. It's the first study to identify a possible link between cancer risks and toxic air pollution in Harris County. The study was conducted by the University of Texas School of Public Health. It was funded by the Houston Department of Health and Human Services and the Centers for Disease Control. The study found that children living within two miles of the ship channel had a 56 percent higher risk of getting acute lymphocytic leukemia than children living more than ten miles from the channel. Mayor Bill White says the results will help spur city efforts to clean up the air.


Four environmental groups have sued Governor Rick Perry over plans for some new coal-fired power plants. The suit filed in Austin accuses Perry of violating state law and the Texas constitution by issuing an executive order to speed the permitting process. TXU Corporation's coal proposal is on the fast track under an order the governor issued last year to expand electricity production and lower its cost. A Perry spokesman says the governor's order merely cut bureaucratic red tape in the permitting process and is within his constitutional authority. The environmental groups say that's too soon for them to build their case. This lawsuit and one filed last year against the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality seek to overturn Perry's order--and delay the hearing.


Competition is tight in the phone business these days and AT&T has unveiled a new marketing effort aimed at giving it a leg up. AT&T customers who subscribe to both its Cingular Wireless and traditional phone services can now make and receive unlimited free calls to and from any other AT&T or Cingular customer. The expanded "free calling'' network includes about 100 million phone numbers. The feature being launched comes just weeks since AT&T completed its acquisition of BellSouth. It now has complete ownership of Cingular and BellSouth's nine-state local phone business. Both Cingular and BellSouth are being renamed under the AT&T brand. To qualify for the expanded offering, a customer needs be both a Cellular subscriber and have an unlimited AT&T local and long-distance account for a landline within the company's 22-state region.


Baker Hughes in Houston reports the number of rigs actively exploring for oil and natural gas in the U.S. jumped by 28 this week--to reach 1,745. One year ago the rig count was 1,472. Texas gained 19 rigs.


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