Merced County's unemployment rate climbed again last month, to 19.9 percent.
That’s up painfully from January's 18.9 percent and the county’s year-ago unemployment rate of 13.6 percent.
Joblessness here is now quickly approaching the highest level ever recorded, 21.7 percent in February 1996.
The latest figures were released Friday by the state’s Employment Development Department.
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The data show that Merced County's unemployment level was far higher last month than both the state's 10.9 percent and the nation's 8.9 percent.
And only three California counties had higher unemployment than Merced in February: Colusa, Imperial and Trinity.
California's unemployment rate rose for the 11th straight month, to its highest level in 26 years.
In response to the data released Friday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger issued a statement calling unemployment the most urgent problem facing the state.
"There is no higher priority in California today than putting our economy back on track and creating jobs for those who find themselves without a means to provide for their families," Schwarzenegger said.
Like employers across the nation, countless local companies have laid off workers in recent months as they’ve closed their doors or attempted to stay afloat amid the global recession.
Merced County's unemployment rate has been climbing since September.
The majority of jobs lost locally last month were in the trade, transportation and utilities sectors, the EDD data show. Only the leisure and hospitality sector gained jobs last month, all of them in food services.
Pedro Vargas, a state labor market consultant based in Merced, said he had anticipated some gains in construction jobs. “It was disappointing not to see that,” Vargas said.
For information on how to file for unemployment benefits, go to www.edd.ca.gov.
Reporter Corinne Reilly can be reached at (209)385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.