The Northern San Joaquin Valley and the state saw small dips in their jobless rates for April, halting almost a full year of gains in unemployment.
Numbers released by the state Friday show Stanislaus County dropped from 17.5 percent in March to 16.8 percent, the first significant decrease in unemployment since August. San Joaquin went from 16.4 percent to 15.6 percent, and Merced from 20.4 percent to 18.3 percent. The surrounding foothill counties also had slightly lower rates.
The numbers correspond with a historical uptick in employment in April because of seasonal increases in farm and construction work.
Liz Baker, a labor market analyst for the state Employment Development Department, said she did not think the decrease signified the start of a larger trend for the area, but nonetheless was a positive sign during still near-record high unemployment.
"I think the one thing we can look at and see hope in is that there are jobs being created," Baker said. "There may not be a lot of jobs being created, but there are several industries coming on. These are modest gains, yet those are more people in the labor market that weren't before."
One of those people who went back to work in April was Modesto resident Elisa Lozano. The 38-year-old mother of six had been out of work since June, when she left her job as a manager for Extreme Pizza to move to Sacramento with her daughter.
'A blessing from God'
Since then, she moved back and guesses that she had applied for more than 1,000 jobs. While on a walk with her family around their neighborhood, she saw work under way on the new Dollar Superstore on Orangeburg Avenue and Coffee Road and got her break.
"When we saw it was opening, we just couldn't wait. We thought, 'OK, jobs. Maybe we can get hired,' " she said. "It was a blessing from God and it's just five minutes from my house."
Lozano and her husband, who worked at Mervyn's before the company went out of business, were hired last month to help get the store ready for its grand opening. Last week, they came on permanently as stockers and cashiers.
"I'd been hitting the pavement, I went online, I went to temp agencies," she said. "But for every ad you saw, maybe 100 to 300 people applied. I kept copies of my résumé on me. It got really discouraging. I worried I wouldn't be able to buy the kids clothes or have enough groceries for the refrigerator. So we're so thankful."
The Lozanos aren't alone in getting jobs. The number of people unemployed in California shrank by 35,000 last month. The state's jobless rate dropped slightly from 11.2 percent in March to 11 percent in April.
Still the month-to-month improvement does not change the state's grim jobs picture. The number of unemployed topped 2 million, up 843,000 from a year ago.
Stanislaus County's unemployment rate is 6.4 percentage points higher than the rate for April 2008, and the surrounding valley and foothill counties are up by 4.1 to 6.1 percentage points.
"One month does not a trend make," state Employment Development Department spokeswoman Loree Levy said. "We have to kind of see how the next few months go. But we've been seeing such spikes that this is good news."
The gains made in Stanislaus County included some reassuring indicators. Two hundred jobs in construction, one of the hardest hit industries, were added last month. Baker said over the past 19 years, an average of 300 construction jobs are added each April in Stani- slaus County.
Farming saw 300 worker gains; manufacturing, trade, professional business serv- ices and government added 100 each.
"Construction has been pretty much trending downward," Baker said. "So it's a good sign that there is construction work in the area. We're not at the level of the peak of employment. But trade jobs normally remain stable, and there was an uptick (in April). So that's actually a good indication, too."
National rate still rising
Nationally, the unemployment rate continues to rise, from 8.5 percent in March to 8.9 percent in April.
The valley's April bump, Baker said, normally is followed by slumps until midsummer when farming work drives increased employment. From this year to last, the county's sharp rise in unemployment was interrupted only by a 0.07 percentage point drop from July to August 2008 and a 0.01 percentage point drop the following month.
"While we don't project an increase in the labor force, with the stimulus money that is eventually going to trickle down and some of the green jobs and industries that will be coming, there is some hope there will be an increase of the numbers of hires in the future," Baker said. "The best ray of hope is to see people going back to work."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at email@example.com or 578-2284.