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Experts: County's unemployment figures not cause for alarm

For the fifth consecutive month, unemployment climbed in Merced County in February, though only by a fraction of a percentage point.

The county’s February unemployment rate was 13.4 percent, according to recently released data from the state’s Employment Development Department.

While that figure is far worse than the state’s 6.1 percent February unemployment rate and the nation’s 5.2 percent, experts said the local data aren’t cause for alarm.

Pedro Vargas, a state labor market consultant based in Merced, said the increase is in line with seasonal changes in Merced’s agricultural industry, and joblessness will likely go down as farm work picks up.

“This is pretty typical for this time of year,” Vargas said. “The numbers show we are weak, but we’re not devastated.”

The county’s unemployment rate was one-and-a-half percentage points lower last February.

National employment data for the month of March, released Friday by the U.S. Labor Department, prompted many economists to declare the U.S. may already be in a recession. The national economy lost 80,000 jobs in March, more than experts had predicted. And employment rose for the third consecutive month nationally.

Though the state has yet to release March data for Merced County, the county gained 400 jobs in February. “That’s not to say we’re doing better locally,” Vargas said. “We’ve had a weaker economy than the country as a whole for a long time.”

The county’s unemployment rate ranked fourth highest among California’s 58 counties in February. Only Colusa, Imperial and Trinity counties had worse figures.The county gained about 100 farm jobs in February, as well as jobs in the health services sector, leisure and hospitality and government work. The county lost jobs in manufacturing and in the trade and transportation sector.

Andrea Baker, director of the county’s workforce investment department, said her agency has seen a sizable increase in the number of job-seekers coming to its drop-in center. “We’re getting about 100 people a day,” Baker said. “That’s a record for us ... Some have been laid off. Some are looking for second jobs. Some are moms who used to be able to stay home, but now they need the income.”

Debbie Perez, an office assistant at Peggy Heller Elementary School in Atwater, said she plans to start looking for a new job soon. She found out Tuesday that her 40-hour-a-week position will soon be reduced to 30 hours because of education cuts stemming from the state’s budget deficit.

“I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I’m going to have to do something else,” she said. “That’s a quarter of my paycheck that I won’t be getting. I need the whole thing. I have two children.”

Baker said the bleak national picture can only mean bad news for Merced, explaining that Merced County’s economy is vulnerable because it’s less diversified and comprised of fewer sectors. “In general, we’re usually the first to feel a pinch and the last ones to recover,” she said.

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