AUGUSTA (AP) – Maine’s unemployment rate in December grew to 7 percent, the highest level since June 1992, the state Department of Labor announced Tuesday.

Maine shed 3,400 jobs last month as the seasonally adjusted jobless rate rose from 6.3 percent in November and 4.9 percent in December 2007, when the nation entered a recession, Commissioner Laura Fortman said. The national unemployment rate was 7.2 percent in December.

Sen. Troy Jackson, D-Allagash, said the latest state figures come as no surprise to Mainers who have seen the impact of widespread job losses.

“We don’t need a new number to tell us that our friends and neighbors are hurting,” Jackson said Tuesday. “But to see it in writing, to see 7 percent, it’s a scary number and a hard reality for far too many Maine families and workers.”

Retail trade and construction took the biggest hits between November and December in Maine. Over the year, employment fell by 11,700, affecting nearly all sectors except education, health and professional and business services.

Unemployment varied sharply by region, with the non-seasonally adjusted rate ranging from a low of 5.2 percent in Cumberland County to 12 percent in Piscataquis County.

“The deepening national recession made December a very difficult month for Maine workers and employers,” Fortman said. “As economic conditions deteriorated this year, Maine’s unemployment rate has trended steadily upward, mirroring the national average.”

The commissioner noted that while many other states are faced with cutting unemployment benefits or raising employer taxes to replenish unemployment trust funds, Maine has enough money to continue to pay benefits to laid-off workers.

But the rising jobless rate has put pressure on Maine, where high call volumes at Unemployment Claims Centers have made it difficult for workers to file new claims or obtain information about benefits.

Jackson, who co-chairs the Legislature’s Labor Committee, said the state should take advantage of any available federal money to hire workers to help process claims.

Earlier this month, Gov. John Baldacci waived a mandatory curtailment order and approved the hiring of 48 additional Labor Department staff to deal with the growing caseload.

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