State

Jobless rate up slightly to 19.2%

The Stanislaus County unemployment rate inched up to 19.2 percent for March.

The increase, from an adjusted 19 percent for February, keeps the area's jobless rate at near-record highs.

The surrounding counties all saw their unemployment rates go up slightly or hold steady, according to numbers released Friday by the state Employment Development Department.

The numbers reflect what's going on nationally, but are worse in the valley, said Sheila Urdesich, an EDD labor market analyst. "California entered the recession sooner and with more severity than the rest of the nation, so we're playing catch-up."

Still the county added 700 jobs from the previous month, as the overall size of the work force grew.

"The one piece of encouraging news is that even though the rate went up a little bit, there are 700 more people employed," said Jeff Rowe, director of the Alliance Worknet. "So that is actually a bit of encouraging news."

The Northern San Joaquin Valley typically begins to see an easing off of its jobless rates in the spring as agricultural work starts up, bringing with it jobs in corresponding industries like manufacturing and transportation.

Still, improvements to the area's unemployment rate may lag even as more of the job market loosens up because of people re-entering the work force. The jobless rate does not reflect those people who are underemployed or those who have stopped looking for work altogether.

"People, because there is so much bad news and because they haven't been able to find work, they get discouraged," said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific.

"But once they see the unemployment rate going down ... they start looking for jobs, so that bumps up the total number in the labor force, which can have the effect of the employment rate not looking like it's improving substantially."

Another factor complicating the unemployment picture is the number of underemployed workers. When the economy starts to improve, they are expected to be shifted from part-time to full-time work, or seek alternate employment, thus not affecting the overall jobless numbers.

California's unemployment rate hit a modern record of 12.6 percent in March, up from 12.5 percent in February. Yet it was the third consecutive month that the state added jobs, gaining 32,400 this year.

Howard Roth, chief economist for the state Department of Finance, said the unemployment rate appears to be at or near its peak. It was the first time since mid-2007 that the state saw job gains for three consecutive months. The department previously had reported a job loss in February, but revised those numbers Friday based on new data. "I think this is for real," Roth said of the economic rebound.

Still more than 2.3 million Californians remained unemployed, with 362,000 more people jobless than a year ago. In Stanislaus County, 46,100 residents were unemployed in March.

The seasonal upswing that normally arrives in April is expected to be muted some by the closure of the 4,700-worker New United Motor Manufacturing Inc. plant in Fremont at the end of last month.

Also, the 147-person Stellar Relay call center in Salida has filed a Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification Act notice with the county that it will close June 1.

"The unemployment rate is going to stay stubbornly high all year long," Michael said. "But Modesto has shown marginal job growth in the past few months. Marginal is not negative; we'll take what we can get."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Bee staff writer Marijke Rowland can be reached at mrowland@modbee.com or 578-2284.

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