January jobless spike doesn’t hamper Mesa County labor outlook

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Celina Kirnberger

A spike in the monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County doesn’t change expectations for improving labor conditions in 2021.

“I think things are going in the right direction,” said Celina Kirnberger, employment services supervisor at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

Labor demand has increased along with seasonal hiring, Kirnberger said. The opening of new businesses also bodes well. “That’s a really good sign.”

According to Colorado Department of Labor and Employment estimates, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County climbed to 7.9 percent in January, up seven-tenths of a point from a revised 7.2 percent in December.

The jobless rate historically spikes in Mesa County in January because of layoffs after the holidays and winter weather that slows construction and other outdoor work. The spike was higher this year than last, when the jobless rate before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic and related restrictions stood at 4.1 percent.

 For January 2021, Mesa County payrolls decreased 747 to 70,285. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased 495 to 5,996. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, edged down 252 to 76,281.

Compared to a year ago, payrolls dropped 2,426 even as the ranks of the unemployed increased 2,896. The labor force grew 450.

Labor demand as measured the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center increased in January with 717 orders, Kirnberger said. That’s more than double the 347 orders posted the same month last year. 

However, job orders for January 2021 involved a total of 1,261 openings. Job orders for January 2020 involved 1,953 orders.

New claims for unemployment benefits increased more than four-fold, Kirnberger said — from 225 in January 2020 to 975 in January 2021.

While more will be known when February labor estimates are released on March 26,  Kirnberger said conditions have improved since the beginning of the year with seasonal hiring in construction, landscaping and the hospitality sector. New businesses will bring more new jobs, she said.

The Mesa County Workforce Center and Colorado Mesa University will join to help make more connections between employers and prospective employees in a career and job fair scheduled for 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. April 8 at the Mesa Mall in Grand Junction. Kirnberger said there’s room for more employers to participate.

Kirnberger said she expects labor conditions to continue to improve through 2021 as more people receive COVID-19 vaccinations and pandemic restrictions ease. The effects of the pandemic likely will linger, but employers have discovered new ways to do business, she said.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also increased in January in neighboring West Slope counties: 1.1 points to 6.9 percent in Rio Blanco County, six-tenths of a point to 6.9 percent in Delta County, four-tenths of a point to 6.6 percent in Montrose County and three-tenths of a point to 6 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate fell-three tenths of a point to 6.6 percent in January as nonfarm payrolls increased 32,000 between December and January.

Over the past year, the statewide jobless rate has jumped nearly four points. The annual unemployment rate in Colorado hit 7.3 percent in 2020, with monthly rates ranging from 2.7 percent in January to 12.1 percent in April.

Payrolls decreased 160,800 over the past year, more than half of that in the leisure and hospitality sector. The education and health services sector and other services category also shed jobs.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls lengthened over the past year six-tenths of an hour to 33.6 hours. Average hourly earnings rose 32 cents to $31.05.