Jobless rate soars to 18.9 percent in Merced County

Merced County continues to hemorrhage jobs, with an unemployment rate so steep it prompted a U.S. congressman to declare the county and environs an "economic disaster area."

The jobless rate also stands among the highest in the nation.

In January, Merced's unemployment rate climbed to 18.9 percent, a 3.2 percentage point increase from December's 15.7, according to the state's Employment Development Department.

The county now has the dubious distinction of being the county with the fourth-highest unemployment rate in California.

California's unemployment rate, which is almost two percentage points above the nation's, increased in January to 10.6 percent.

During that period the county lost a total of 2,700 jobs. That was almost twice the losses seen in January 2008, which saw an unemployment rate of 13.4 percent.

The major industries hit at the opening of 2009 were trade, government, manufacturing and construction.

Retail job losses topped the chart with 500 layoffs. But manufacturing and local government weren't far behind. Three hundred manufacturing jobs disappeared in January, as did 400 county government jobs. Additionally, the already hard-hit construction sector continued its downward spiral with 200 lost jobs.

But Pedro Vargas, a labor market consultant for the EDD in Merced, noted that not all signs were bad.

Merced has still not hit the peak 21.7 percent unemployment rate it reached in February 1996, he said. That record came in the wake of the shutdown of Castle Air Force Base.

And there were 300 new jobs created by local business in January, he said.

Despite the job losses, "there are some good signs that the economy is going to pick up within the next couple of months," he said. Still, retail sales remain a problem: "The negative I'm seeing is that retail is down. People are not out there buying."

At the national level, worries over the region's economic health have grown as well.

The jobless crisis has reached such a state that this week Congressman Dennis Cardoza is formally requesting President Obama and Gov. Schwarz-enegger to declare California's 18th Congressional District an economic disaster area. "The idea is that once something like that happens we would be able to get some additional resources," said Cardoza's spokesman Mike Jensen.

This move by Cardoza was motivated by a combination of events and forces. "It's just been a snowball of things. Between foreclosures and the numbers that came out today, obviously the situation is not good for Merced County and 18th congressional district," said Jensen.

On Thursday afternoon, Albaro Avila and his wife Alice were headed into the county's employment service, Worknet. Avila has been unemployed for more than a year after he lost his job as a tire technician in Madera County. The couple moved to Merced to live with family in December because they could no longer afford to pay their rent. "It's been very tough," said Avila about his job search. "I've been everywhere."

His wife, Alice Avila, thought it ironic they've ended up in Merced, which has an even higher unemployment rate than Madera.

Ironic maybe. But not funny.

Reporter Jonah Owen Lamb can be reached at (209) 385-2484 or e-mailed at