Stanislaus County's unemployment rate ticked up to 19.1 percent for February — its worst in 17 years. The rate was up from a revised 18.8 percent for January, according to numbers released Friday by the Employment Development Department.
The month was the highest since February 1993, when the county's jobless rate hit 19.7 percent, its highest point during that recession.
Merced and San Joaquin also saw their rates inch up in February, while the foothill counties of Tuolumne, Calaveras and Mariposa experienced slight drops.
"I see nothing encouraging in 19.1 percent unemployment," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific. "But we actually saw higher unemployment during the '90s in the valley. We're one of the only places you can say that we've actually had higher unemployment than we have right now."
Liz Baker, EDD manager for the region, said only one industry — farming — had year-to-year job gains in Stanislaus County.
"Some of this is expected; we're still struggling to recover from this economic downturn," she said. "The numbers are so large that it will take a major employment activity to give any noticeable turnaround. So we'll take the small advances as they come."
But looking ahead at the area's job market, a series of setbacks awaits. Impending business closures will depress the typical ag-related employment upswing that begins in March and April.
The 4,700-worker New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont will close Wednesday. Already, the first wave of hundreds of its employees worked their last shifts Thursday.
"It's been a great run," said John Wilson, a Manteca resident and body shop employee at NUMMI. "The mood was upbeat. Everybody did their job. They maintained top-quality work to the end."
Wilson plans to go back to school and look for work in green technology.
About 900 NUMMI workers live in San Joaquin County and 300 in Stanislaus County. In addition, 10 of the plant's primary suppliers are in San Joaquin County, with one firm each in Stanislaus and Merced counties.
Stanislaus County also could face the closure of a 150-person call center in Salida when its contract ends in June. In addition, almost 1,000 Stanislaus County educators have been notified they may lose their jobs in July because of continuing budget cuts in the public schools.
Michael said those factors will complicate, but not negate, the area's seasonal hiring upswing.
"NUMMI will take a little of the edge off of the normal improvement," he said. "(The) unemployment rate is going to come down this spring, but it'll be kind of a dent in it. It will sap the strength of the fledgling recovery."
Michael said February's 19.1 percent unemployment could be the worst for this recession. He said the industry payroll numbers have been relatively stable the past several months.
"They haven't started going back up, which we need to do to get out of this," he said. "But this is the first step toward recovery."
For the more than 45,400 unemployed in the county, the numbers just reinforce what they already know.
"It's hard finding any jobs out there," said Kimsean Him, 27, a Modesto resident who has been looking for work for about a year. Him was at a job fair in downtown Modesto this week.
"People with a lot of experience are out looking for work even," he said Wednesday. "It makes me want to go back to school to get more education so I can get a job. But at the same time I need a job to support myself to go back to school."
Additional help is available for those struggling to find employment. The county just received part of $8.2 million in stimulus funds from a Regional National Emergency Grant to address the area's continuing unemployment problem.
Stanislaus County will receive a little less than $1 million, which will go toward job training and employment services.
The state also has applied for a $33 million federal emergency grant to help the counties affected by the NUMMI closure.
"The Department of Labor really did recognize the seriousness of the really extraordinarily high unemployment rates that the valley is experiencing," said Jeff Rowe, director of the Alliance Worknet. "They knew we needed some extra help."
The California (12.5 percent) and U.S. (9.7 percent) unemployment rates were unchanged in February.
The Contra Costa Times contributed to this report.
Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2284.