WASHINGTON — The unemployment rate fell in two-thirds of the nation's states last month, the latest evidence that the strengthening economy is encouraging many employers to boost hiring.
The Labor Department said Tuesday that the unemployment rate dropped in 34 states in March. That's the largest number of states to record a decline since June. The rate rose in seven states and was unchanged in nine and Washington, D.C.
Employers hired more workers in 38 states. A government survey of employer payrolls found only 12 states plus Washington, D.C. lost jobs last month, the fewest since October.
Nationally, the unemployment rate fell in March to a two-year low of 8.8 percent, and private employers added more than 200,000 jobs for the second consecutive month. That's the largest two-month hiring total in four years.
Texas added 37,200 net jobs in March, the most of any state. It was followed by Missouri and Florida, both of which reported strong gains. California lost 11,600 net jobs – the most of any state. Connecticut, Louisiana, Maryland and Maine all had large job losses, too.
New Mexico reported the biggest monthly drop in unemployment among all state, falling from 8.7 percent in February to 8.1 percent in March. Florida, Oklahoma, Indiana, Missouri and Ohio posted the next biggest monthly declines.
The Midwest is faring particularly well, said Steve Cochrane, a regional economist at Moody's Analytics. The region has generated more jobs in the past three months than any of the other three regions. A rebound in manufacturing has spurred hiring in professional services such as accounting, advertising and legal services. New weekly applications for unemployment benefits have fallen to pre-recession levels, Cochrane said, the first region where that has happened.
As a result, the unemployment rate in the Midwest dropped from 8.4 percent to 8.3 percent last month. That's just above the Northeast's 8.2 percent unemployment rate – the best among the four regions. The West had the highest unemployment for any region in March, at 10.7 percent, followed by the South at 9.0 percent
Nevada again had the highest unemployment rate of any state, although it fell from 13.6 percent to 13.2 percent in March. California, at 12 percent, was second, followed by Florida (11.1 percent) and Rhode Island (11 percent).
Florida's unemployment rate has come down slightly from the 11.3 percent rate recorded a year ago. That's the state's first year-over-year decline since November 2006. Some of the drop is because many people who are unemployed have given up looking for work. People without jobs who aren't looking aren't counted as unemployed.
"We're still on the cusp of recovery in the job market," said Sean Snaith, an economics professor at the University of Central Florida.
The Sunshine State has added jobs in health care and in its signature industry – tourism. Snaith said restaurants, hotels and theme parks are adding workers. A new Harry Potter theme park at Universal Studios' Orlando resort has been popular, he said.
North Dakota had the nation's lowest unemployment rate at 3.6 percent. It was followed by Nebraska at 4.2 percent and South Dakota at 4.9 percent.