Farm jobs up, jobless rate down in Merced County

06/21/2014 12:00 AM

06/20/2014 5:44 PM

Merced County saw a decrease in the unemployment rate of nearly 2 percentage points, to 12.5 percent in May from the previous month, according to numbers released Friday from the state’s Employment Development Department.

The county has also been riding a wave of lower unemployment numbers than those in 2013, and that streak continued in May. However, Merced’s unemployment rate remains the highest in the Central Valley.

The biggest jolt to the jobless numbers came from the roughly 1,500 new farm jobs in May, as it is the time of year when farmers are hiring, said Pedro Vargas, a labor analyst with EDD. “It’s a good indication that farming’s going full blast,” he said.

A couple of job categories – local government and wholesale trade – lost 100 jobs each. Vargas said those decreases were modest for this time of year, when many schools and colleges wind down and are not employing noncontracted workers.

The summer months are the peak season for harvesting, said Amanda Carvajal, executive director of the Merced County Farm Bureau. Some farmers are also still planting, so now is the busiest time of year for them.

California’s drought has caused some farmers to pull back on what they grow. “There are a lot of farms, particularly on the Westside, that are not at full capacity,” she said.

Still other growers are making moves to harvest early, she said, because they anticipate having a smaller water supply later in the year. Only time will tell how it all shakes out. “This is going to be an interesting year,” she said.

Dario Giampaoli, owner of Double G Farms in Le Grand, said labor has increased for his farm, which is more than 70 years old, during this very dry year. Early in the year, when rainfall would typically water plants like almonds, the 72-year-old farmer had to employ workers to sprinkle the crops with well water.

That’s good news for farmworkers but tougher on farmers’ wallets. “Our expenses are actually higher for labor, because we started in January instead of March,” he said.

Summer tourism may help

Moving later into the summer, Merced County typically begins to see an increase in jobs related to tourism, Vargas said.

Later this summer, the county’s jobless rate will also feel the impact of the 91 people who will lose their jobs when Mi Pueblo Market in Atwater closes. The grocery store announced this week that its Atwater location will close later this year and begin layoffs at the end of August.

May jobless rates for the county’s six cities were 12.4 percent for Merced, 12.8 percent for Atwater, 17.2 percent for Dos Palos, 7.2 percent for Gustine, 14.6 percent for Livingston and 13.2 percent for Los Banos.

Unemployment fell statewide last month to levels not seen since before the stock market crashed in 2008.

California’s unemployment rate fell two-tenths of a percentage point, to 7.6 percent. It was the lowest level since August 2008, just before the market crash tipped the country into recession.

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