Unemployment drops in Merced County

The December unemployment rate was 14.2 percent, down 2.5 percentage points from the same time last year, according to figures released by the state Employment Development Department. It’s another sign Merced County is slowly beginning to recover from its long economic tailspin, according to analysts.

December did tick up from November’s revised unemployment rate of 13.6 percent. Analysts generally see the year-to-year comparisons as a better bellwether than month-to-month.

About 1,600 seasonal farm jobs were lost between November and December this year. That’s pretty typical this time of year, said Pedro Vargas, a labor market consultant for the EDD.

“The only one that threw me a little bit off was trade and transportation,” Vargas said.

There were 500 fewer trade, transportation and utilities jobs in December than in the previous month. Vargas said that industry includes trucking and private bus companies, among other jobs.

Many trucking companies in Merced County rely on the farming industry for the produce they move, Vargas said, and so the dip in transportation jobs is likely connected to the end of the peak growing season.

Curtis Riggs, who owns two busing companies, said he is always looking for more bus drivers. He owns Merced Transportation Co. and VIA Trailways, which offer both public and private bus transportation.

“We are running ads all the time to hire people and are finding it hard to find people interested,” Riggs said.

While the jobs are not high-paying, Riggs stressed that the qualifications aren’t beyond the reach of most people.

Another industry, government jobs, also decreased by 200 since November.

Jordan Levine, an economist from Beacon Economics of Los Angeles, said Merced County’s economy has been slowly improving and he expects that trend to continue.

“We always like to talk about jobs and the unemployment rate ... but it’s important to remember that the labor markets tend to be a lagging indicator,” he said. “You wait for your business to be firing on all cylinders before you go out there and start hiring new employees.”

An even better sign of an improving economy is the 7.6 percent increase in 2013 taxable sales in Merced over 2012, Levine said. Home prices have also increased by 26.4 percent and will continue to go up, but not by so much, he added. Levine said the number of nonresidential building permits is expected to rise as well.

The retail job market will begin to improve as February rolls around, Vargas said.

Some new jobs may be available with additional shops and eateries coming to to Merced.

Panera Bread is set to open Feb. 7, according to Stephanie Wren, the senior regional marketing manager for the cafe-style eatery. The 4,200-square-foot Panera on R Street has already hired its roughly 50 employees.

However, the 2,000-square-foot Chipotle Mexican Grill on R Street will hire between 25 and 30 employees, according Danielle Winslow, a spokeswoman for the eatery. She said interested parties should go to jobs.chipotle.com. Chipotle has a tentative opening date of March 6.

December’s unemployment rates in Merced County’s six cities were 14.1 percent for Merced, 14.5 percent for Atwater, 19.4 percent for Dos Palos, 8.2 percent for Gustine, 16.5 percent for Livingston and 15 percent for Los Banos.

Across the state, payroll jobs grew by 13,600 in December, a fairly weak number. But economists say that when the economy is growing, the payroll numbers are often revised upward a month later. In Friday’s report, the EDD revised the November payroll numbers up from the originally reported 44,300 to 50,300.

State officials said California employers have added 235,700 jobs in the past year, a gain of 1.6 percent.