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updated 2/2/2011 2:07:34 PM ET 2011-02-02T19:07:34

The unemployment rate fell or stayed the same in December in two-thirds of the nation's largest metro areas, fresh evidence that employers are slowly adding jobs.

The Labor Department says the unemployment rate dropped in 207 of the 372 largest metro areas, the most to report a decline since September. The unemployment rate rose in 122 areas and was the same in 43.

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Nationwide, the unemployment rate dropped sharply in December to 9.4 percent from 9.8 percent. About half that decline was because more unemployed workers gave up on their job searches. The government doesn't count people as unemployed when they stop looking for work. The metro data lags behind the national data by several weeks.

Even with high unemployment nationwide, five metropolitan areas reported large job gains last year, including: Washington, D.C.; Dallas-Fort Worth; Boston; Phoenix, Ariz.; and Minneapolis-St. Paul.

Unlike the national report, the metro figures aren't seasonally adjusted to account for trends such as the hiring of agricultural workers for fall harvests, or the layoff of temporary retail employees after the winter holidays. That makes the data more volatile from month to month.

Fourteen areas recorded unemployment rates of at least 15 percent, 12 of them in California. Unemployment topped 10 percent in 109 areas, down from 114 the previous month. That's also below the 140 areas with 10 percent unemployment or higher a year earlier.

For all of 2010, unemployment dropped in 238 metro areas, while it rose in 115 and remained the same in 49.

El Centro, Calif. had the highest unemployment rate in December, at 28.3 percent. It was followed by Yuma, Ariz., with 23.2 percent. The two areas are adjacent with a high concentration of migrant farm workers.

Lincoln, Neb. had the lowest unemployment rate at 3.5 percent. It was followed by Bismarck, N.D. and Fargo, N.D. at 3.9 percent and 4 percent, respectively.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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