Merced County unemployment jumps to 15.5 percent

Merced County's unemployment rate soared to 15.5 percent last month, the highest level in a decade, according to figures released Friday by the state's Employment Development Department.

That's up considerably from November's 13.3 percent and the county's year-ago jobless rate of 11.9 percent.

Merced's unemployment level also was far higher last month than both the state's 9.1 percent and the nation's 7.1 percent.

And only two California counties had higher unemployment than Merced in December: Colusa and Imperial.

"These certainly aren't good numbers, but we can't say we weren't expecting that," said Pedro Vargas, a state labor market consultant based in Merced. "With the economy the way it is, we were bracing for a pretty big jump."

Statewide last month, joblessness was the highest it's been in 15 years. Analysts expect unemployment to continue to climb across the nation as the U.S. heads into a second year of recession.

Like employers all over the country, countless local companies have laid off workers in recent months as they've closed their doors or attempted to stay afloat amid the downturn.

Merced County's unemployment rate has been climbing since September. The last time it rose above last month's rate was in 1999.

The majority of jobs lost in Merced last month were in the farming, manufacturing, financial and leisure and hospitality sectors, the EDD data show. No industries posted job gains locally in December.

Vargas said some losses in the agriculture sector are normal this time of year, though more jobs were lost in farming last month than analysts expected.

"It seems like it just gets harder and harder every month," said Kenneth Robinson, 47, who has been looking for a job since he moved to Merced from Tennessee four months ago. "So many people are getting laid off that the (job) market is just flooded right now, so it feels kind of impossible out there."

Robinson worked in real estate before he came to Merced. He figures that's the last industry where he'll find success at this point, so he's hoping for a job in sales or management.

But he's not too optimistic. "At this point I'll take anything I can get," he said. "Income is income, right?"

For information on how to file for unemployment benefits, go to www.edd.ca.gov.