January joblessness jumps in Mesa County

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Curtis Englehart

A seasonal spike in the monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County was less pronounced, but the outlook for 2020 remains uncertain given the implications of the coronavirus outbreak.

“This is such uncharted territory,” said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate rose a point to 4.1 percent in January, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The jobless rate usually spikes in January to its highest level of the year because of layoffs after the holidays and the effects of winter weather on construction and other outdoor activities, Englehart said.

Still, the latest jobless rate remains below the same time last year, when the rate jumped to 5 percent.

For January 2020, Mesa County payrolls decreased 1,582 from December to 72,285. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased 714 to 3,088. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, shrank 868 to 75,373.

Over the past year, payrolls have increased 245 even as the ranks of the unemployed have decreased 685. The labor force has declined 440, however, which Englehart said is troubling and puzzling given 2019 was one of the best years on record for the local labor market.
“I don’t necessarily have a good answer for that.”

Labor demand as measured by the number of job openings posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center was strong in January at 1,953, he said. That’s more than double the 800 openings posted during January 2019. Demand remains strong for positions in health care and manufacturing as well as office and administrative jobs.

A total of 225 initial claims for unemployment benefits were filed in Mesa County in January, up from 210 a year ago.

While he was mostly encouraged by the January labor estimates, Englehart said the Mesa County labor market since has sustained some big blows.

StarTek, one of the largest private sector employers in Grand Junction, announced in early March it will close its Grand Junction call center. Englehart said the closure will affect 371 employees.

Staff from the Mesa County Workforce Center is working with employees there to offer them assistance in seeking jobs elsewhere, he said. Funding also is available to cover a portion of wages paid to new hires training for different work.

Englehart said it’s too early to tell to what extent the effects of the coronavirus outbreak will affect the economy. That likely will vary with the length and severity of the outbreak and affect different businesses in different ways.

The outbreak has forced the workforce center to cancel face-to-face meetings and postpone its Jump Start Job Fair scheduled for April 7, he said.

Englehart said the center will take advantage of internet connections and other technology to continue to offer services. He encouraged businesses to do the same to the greatest extent possible.

For January, unemployment rates also increased in neighboring Western Colorado counties — 1.2 points to 4.1 percent in Delta County, nine-tenths of a point to 3.4 percent in Montrose County and eight-tenths of a point to 3.2 percent in Garfield County and 3.7 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate remained unchanged at 2.5 percent, the lowest level in Colorado for statistics going back to 1976. Nonfarm payrolls increased 1,300 between December and January.

Over the past year, the state jobless rate retreated seven-tenths of a point. Nonfarm payrolls grew 53,900 with the biggest gains in the professional and business services, educational and health services and construction sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls lengthened three-tenths of an hour to 33 hours. Average hourly earnings increased 60 cents to $30.70.