Stanislaus County's unemployment rate spiked to its highest point in 16 years in January, when more than 44,600 people were out of work.
The county's jobless rate hit 18.9 percent, up from 17.3 percent in December, according to data released Wednesday by the state Employment Development Department.
While the rate historically jumps from December to January, as holiday hires are let go and other industries slow, the 1.6 percentage point climb is steep.
"It's always the biggest jump of the year, by at least 1 percent," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. "You never want to overreact to a jump in unemployment from December to January, but — yeah — 18.9 percent (unemployment) is pretty big."
Job losses began climbing again about four years ago after the real estate bubble burst. The January numbers are the highest since February 1994, when the unemployment rate peaked at 19.1 percent in Stanislaus County.
Wednesday's figures for January revealed soaring unemployment rates across the region. Merced County jumped by 2.4 percentage points to 21.7 percent and San Joaquin rose to 18.4 percent, a gain of 1.3 percentage points. Tuol-umne had the smallest bounce, 1.2 percentage points to 15.1 percent.
California, at 12.5 percent, set a record for January, when 30 states and the nation's capital reported an uptick in their jobless rates. Only nine states saw jobless rates fall, and 11 saw no change. The national unemployment rate stood at 9.7 percent in January and February.
In Stanislaus County, the biggest hits came in retail, where 1,000 jobs were lost as holiday workers were let go.
One of those workers was Justina Stefanski of Modesto. In November, she was hired at Sephora in Vintage Faire Mall. She said she had been told the job could become permanent, but she was laid off in January.
Since then she has been at the EDD office in downtown Modesto at least three times a week looking for another job.
"Either I'm underqualified or overqualified," said Stefanski, 27, whose last full-time job was a year ago in medical administration. "It gets discouraging, and sometimes I kind of feel like giving up. With so much competition in the area, I'm going to have to expand my search."
The competition is only expected to get harder. The unemployment rate also historically climbs from January to February.
"The trend has been that the unemployment rate goes up during the winter months and starts to decrease again in March or April," said Nanette Potter, a labor market analyst with the EDD. "So it looks like from Februaries past, it will go up."
The February numbers will be released March 26.
The January unemployment numbers also show a large year-to-year drop in government employment in the county, by 1,000 workers. That trend likely will continue as county and city governments as well as school districts slash their payrolls to balance their budgets.
"What we are seeing at the local level is that counties and cities are starting to tap out their rainy-day funds, and they've squeezed just as much as they can to wring out excess spending," said Shawn Kantor, professor of economics at the University of California at Merced. "We've already seen the furloughs; next we'll see more permanent layoffs and higher unemployment."
Government jobs missed
Those losses, in particular, will be difficult to replace immediately because those sectors have more stable, higher-paying jobs.
"For an area like the San Joaquin Valley, which tends to be not as well-educated as the rest of the state and have a lower-skilled work force, to see a segment of jobs that is a strong driver of employment have problems is pretty troubling," Kantor said. "It will have significant ripple effects in this area."
Also on the horizon for the valley is the impending closure of the New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont at the end of March.
About 900 NUMMI workers live in San Joaquin County and 300 in Stanislaus County. In addition, 10 of the plant's primary suppliers are in San Joaquin County, with one each in Stanislaus and Merced counties.
The first full impact of the closure is expected to be seen in the April unemployment data, traditionally a time when the jobless rate starts to drop thanks to the restarting of agricultural production and seasonal work.
"(NUMMI) will certainly put some additional pressure on the unemployment rate," Michael said. "I expect it to be less than a 1 percentage-point impact, but will make it that much harder to turn it around. (Those jobs) will be particularly hard to replace in the long run."
Employers have found unprecedented levels of interest in open positions. The new Red Robin restaurant in Manteca started holding open interviews for about 100 positions last month. On the first day, about 650 people showed up.
Restaurant manager Mitch Kinter guesses Red Robin received 1,500 to 2,000 applications. The restaurant has hired about 120 people and now is just accepting applications for the files.
"We knew it'd be a lot," he said. "We weren't expecting the first day to see 200 people when we opened the door at 9:45 a.m. It was like, 'Wow, OK.' "
None of that is any comfort to the unemployed.
Ginny Thomison was at the Modesto EDD office Wednesday scanning the job boards and checking e-mail.
The 41-year-old Modesto resident has been out of work for almost a year; she had worked at Howard Training Center for eight years before that. She has been living with friends after losing her house to foreclosure and being unable to make her rent.
During that time she guesses she has been able to land only four or five job interviews. But how many jobs has she applied for?
"Oh, God," she said. "I can't count that high."
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.