Merced County sees slight rise in unemployment

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comMarch 21, 2014 

TM Veterans Job Fair

About 170 people, including 65 veterans, gathered at the American Legion Hall in Merced to speak with employers at a job fair earlier this month. Just-released figures reveal that the unemployment rate in Merced County was 16.1 percent in February.

THADDEUS MILLER — tmiller@mercedsunstar.com Buy Photo

— A loss of about 200 retail jobs in Merced County is responsible for the small uptick in February’s unemployment rate, according to a state Employment Development Department report.

The unemployment rate in Merced County was 16.1 percent in February. Although up from a revised 16 percent in January, it is down 1.6 percentage points from the year-ago estimate of 17.7 percent.

Pedro Vargas, a labor analyst for EDD, said the decrease in retail jobs is more likely because of late reporting from January than from the economy. That means January’s numbers would have been a little worse and February’s a little better. “Sometimes employers take their time, because they have other priorities,” he said.

Merced has recently added jobs in the retail industry with the opening of Panera Bread and Chipotle Mexican Grill. Harbor Freight Tools is also set to open Tuesday. Those newest retail job numbers will likely register on the report next month, Vargas said.

With just 95,500 jobs in Merced County, experts say, a few hundred jobs can easily move the unemployment rate up or down.

Much of the state has seen economic recovery. That includes the Central Valley, although it’s happening slower here, experts say.

“There’s growth through a good portion of the state,” said Frank Quintero, the city of Merced’s economic development director. “The valley isn’t growing as fast, but nonetheless it’s still recovering.”

Quintero recently returned from a commercial and retail conference in Monterey, where he met with developers to drum up interest in Merced.

Merced is also experiencing what other Central Valley towns are – many once-empty buildings are filling up. “There’s optimism, and retailers are looking at Merced and Merced County as a whole,” Quintero said. “Retailers are interested, as well as service providers and restaurants.”

The county saw an increase in jobs from this time last month for farm work and government jobs, 200 and 600 respectively. The state is hiring unemployment insurance workers, Vargas said, and local and Merced County governments have also hired.

Compared with this time last year, Merced County has 4,000 more jobs, 3,100 of them in farming. “For the month of February, we’re doing really good,” Vargas said.

February jobless rates for county cities were 15.9 percent for Merced, 16.4 percent for Atwater, 21.7 percent for Dos Palos, 9.3 percent for Gustine, 18.6 percent for Livingston and 16.9 percent for Los Banos.

Statewide unemployment fell to 8 percent last month as payrolls grew sharply, state officials said.

In the latest monthly snapshot of California’s job market, the economy is showing renewed strength. After a difficult January, when payrolls shrank by 32,000, employers added 58,800 jobs during February. The statewide unemployment rate fell by a tenth of a percentage point. The new rate of 8 percent is the lowest it’s been since September 2008, when the financial markets crashed.

Irena Asmundson, chief economist at the state Department of Finance, said the public sector continues to lag, the residue of substantial layoffs at the local level and school districts. Nonetheless, the California economy overall has recaptured 92 percent of the jobs that disappeared in the recession, she said.

Merced Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com. The Sacramento Bee writer Dale Kasler contributed to this report.

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