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San Joaquin Valley job gains outweighed mass layoffs in 2018. What will 2019 bring?

Construction crews work to build new homes on Freemark Avenue in The Meadows at Bellevue Ranch West neighborhood in Merced, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019.
Construction crews work to build new homes on Freemark Avenue in The Meadows at Bellevue Ranch West neighborhood in Merced, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Employers across the greater San Joaquin Valley collectively laid off almost 7,600 workers because of plant or store closures or layoffs in 2018, and some companies already have plans to let go of nearly 600 more in the first few months of 2019.

But those losses were more than offset by significant gains in the overall numbers of people working throughout the year in all but one of the eight counties in the region. As of November, there were about 64,700 more people employed than at the start of the year, according to the state Employment Development Department.

In Merced County, some of the largest numerical gains in year-over-year employment were in the manufacturing and construction industries. Manufacturers added about 900 employees over the course of the year, boosting the total to about 10,700 workers in November.

Merced County’s construction industry – which was hammered by the 2007-09 recession after the mid-2000s housing bubble had burst – grew by about 400 workers to a November total of 3,300 employees.

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Construction crews work to build new homes on Freemark Avenue in The Meadows at Bellevue Ranch West neighborhood in Merced, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Gains in construction, however, were not uniformly seen across the rest of the region. Kings County, for example, was flat for the year, holding steady at 900 jobs to begin and end the year, while Kern County lost about 200 construction jobs.

But in the Stockton area and the rest of San Joaquin County, construction jobs grew from 11,900 to about 13,400 – a gain of 12.6 percent from a year earlier. Fresno County added about 1,500 construction jobs, and more modest gains in construction were seen in Madera, Stanislaus and Tulare counties.

Outweighing the losses

The tens of thousands of jobs gained last year easily outweighed the pain of mass layoffs triggered by plant closures or force reductions up and down the Valley.

The only mass layoffs by Merced County companies to trigger a required state notice were in March, after California Dairies Inc. announced that it was closing a facility in Los Banos and letting go of 63 employees; and the closure of a PSSI (Foster Farms) plant in Livingston in August, which affected 158 workers.

California’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act generally requires a company to notify the state, and its employees, at least 60 days prior to a plant closing or mass layoff. The state law covers employers with at least 75 full- or part-time employees, and includes business closures affecting any number of employees or layoffs of 50 or more workers.

The largest single closure in the San Joaquin Valley was at Seneca Foods in Modesto, where about 1,975 workers lost their jobs in September according to notices filed by the company with the state and local employment officials.

Among permanent closures, the Seneca announcement was followed by the bankruptcy of Zacky Farms, which idled nearly 500 workers when it shut down its poultry processing plants in Fresno and Stockton.

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Construction crews work to build new homes on Freemark Avenue in The Meadows at Bellevue Ranch West neighborhood in Merced, Calif., on Friday, Jan. 11, 2019. Andrew Kuhn akuhn@mercedsun-star.com

Discount retailers Kmart and Sears, both owned by Sears Holdings, also had store closures in the latter half of 2018. Kmart closed stores in Clovis, Delano, Lemoore, Modesto and Visalia that resulted in 341 layoffs, while Sears closures in Modesto and Bakersfield put another 174 employees out of work.

There is likely to be more pain ahead in 2019. Treehouse Private Brands, which makes pretzels, announced last year that it was shutting down the production plant it owns in northwest Visalia. According to required notices provided to the state, about 243 workers will be affected by the closure, and production will be shifted to other Treehouse Foods facilities around the U.S.

Yosemite Meat Company in Modesto is expected to close by the end of this month, which will put about 188 people out of jobs. And in Stockton, the Masonite Corporation will lay off about 131 employees with the closure of a plant in mid-March.

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