South Carolina's unemployment rate dropped to 8.9 percent in March, the first time it's been under 9 percent in three years. That's good news for a state that has staggered under double-digit unemployment for far too long. A year ago, the unemployment rate was 10.4 percent.
But double-digit unemployment is still a reality for many counties. Twenty-one of the state's 46 counties reported rates of 10 percent or higher in March.
Marion County led the state at 17.4 percent, down from 19.1 percent in February. Nearby Allendale and Barnwell counties reported unemployment rates of 16 percent and 14.1 percent respectively, down from 17.8 per and 15.3 percent in February.
That's a high percentage of people out of work, and it makes more troubling the results of the most recent audit of the state's Department of Employment and Workforce, an agency that was overhauled in 2010 because of its dismal performance.
The Legislative Audit Council's report, released last month, again found the agency not doing enough to determine eligibility to receive benefits and whether people receiving unemployment benefits had tried to find work.
The audit found that state unemployment offices were sometimes impossible to reach on the phone. Auditors called all 56 local unemployment centers and couldn't get a person at 14 of them. Eight of those calls went to voice mail, which was full in six cases, leaving people seeking help or information no way to leave a message.
The audit criticized the amount of information the agency collects on where people receiving benefits look for jobs. People on regular benefits just have to list the name of the employer, while people on extended benefits must also list an employer's name, address, phone number and the person contacted. The discrepancy between the two makes no sense. If the agency is going to check behind someone, it needs the more detailed information.
It also found that the agency wasn't reviewing eligibility as frequently as required and the process varied among local offices.
There was some good news. The agency is in better financial shape because of changes in state law increasing the amount employers pay. The department has a plan that takes into account projected benefits, loan repayments and interest and rebuilding sufficient reserves to be able to weather a "moderate" recession.
It's on the path to solvency, but it still has a way to go. As of Dec. 12, South Carolina owed the federal government $782 million in loans used pay unemployment benefits.
Among the audit's recommendations are that lawmakers require only an annual report from the agency and that the report include analysis and recommendations for improving the trust fund's solvency.
It also recommends that lawmakers index the taxable wage base to inflation so that taxes keep pace with benefits paid out. As wages rise, weekly benefits rise.
The auditors note that in their 2010 audit, which resulted in the agency overhaul, they recommended the agency conduct a thorough review of its mission and practices once new management was in place, including how to ensure public confidence in its ability to serve employees and businesses.
"Based on the issues identified in our current review, we believe a thorough review of the agency's processes is still warranted," they write.
Agency officials should follow that very good advice.