The first bright new days of spring have perked up Merced's parks and sent revelers into the streets -- but nearly one-quarter of local residents face a much grimmer day-to-day reality.
Merced County's February unemployment rate, released Friday, showed that 22.1 percent of the local work force was unemployed.
With 23,100 workers out of a job, only six counties in California have higher rates of unemployment.
In January, the county's unemployment rate was 21.7 percent. The increase in February marks the fifth straight increase in monthly unemployment.
The new figures bring Merced that much closer to the highest unemployment rate recorded by the same measures used today. In February 1993, 18,600 people, or 22.5 percent of the local work force, were unemployed. (Previous Sun-Star reports put the highest unemployment rate at 21.7 percent in 1996, because data from the state were unavailable for 1993.)
The state unemployment rate, also released Friday, was 12.5 percent, unchanged from January. The national unemployment rate has also held steady for two months in a row, at 9.7 percent.
"It's really hard to say what caused the increase; it was a slight difference," said Nannette Potter, Central Valley regional manager for the state's Employment Development Department, of the 700 newly unemployed here. "It could be that students who returned to school left the work force. It could be people who had retired, but are now looking for work, or extra income."
The increase in unemployment came with an increase in the total number of jobs and in the number of people actively looking for work.
The hardest-hit communities in Merced County were South Dos Palos and Planada, with local unemployment rates of 48.3 percent and 45.1 percent. Only Delhi, Gustine, Hilmar and Merced posted unemployment rates lower than the county average.
Reporter Danielle E. Gaines can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or email@example.com.