Unemployment in Merced County climbed more than 2 percentage points in January compared with the previous month, but the county is still in a better position than it was a year ago, according to the latest figures from the state Employment Development Department.
The rise from 13.8 percent to 15.9 percent was not unexpected, given that it followed anticipated seasonal layoffs in agriculture and retail markets, according to Pedro Vargas, an EDD labor market consultant.
The EDD said Merced County lost 900 agriculture jobs, 900 government jobs, and 700 retail and wholesale trade jobs in January.
“Farming typically goes down around this time year, and we see retail layoffs too,” Vargas said.
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However, retail numbers fell more than expected and there were additional transportation, utilities and trade jobs lost that were more troubling, Vargas said.
“Normally, we’re not down that much in retail,” Vargas said. “I think some employers really just reported their numbers late. I’d say the year started off slow, but was not a complete failure.”
Still, the numbers indicate that the Merced County job market is stronger than it was a year ago, when employment was at 18.4 percent.
“There have been gains in financial, leisure and hospitality, and informational jobs, and those all show strong numbers now,” Vargas said. “Overall, the numbers are not alarming and do show things are better than last year.”
Mark Hendrickson, Merced County director of community and economic development, called the year-over-year improvement “marginal, but positive.”
He said the county’s statistical seasonal fluctuations are consistent with other parts of the state. Focusing on reducing the county’s overall “chronically high” unemployment remains the most important goal, he said.
“Our goal is to make the process of launching and expanding businesses in Merced County easier,” Hendrickson said. “We want to invite other businesses and industry here while promoting our agricultural base.”
California posted an 8.5 percent unemployment rate in January; the national rate was 7 percent, according to the EDD.
“While there’s always room for improvement, it’s pleasing to see improvement this year,” Hendrickson said.
In neighboring Stanislaus County, the unemployment rate also ticked up in January, following the same seasonal hiring patterns that see Central Valley jobs drop after the holidays. Although the rate increased to 13.3 percent for the month, up from a revised 12 percent in December, it was still below the 15.3 percent rate at this time last year.