Mesa County jobless rate climbs

John Flanagan
John Flanagan

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The unemployment rate continues to increase in Mesa County along with layoffs in the energy sector.

If history repeats itself, the jobless rate could climb even higher with additional layoffs after the holidays before warmer weather and the seasonal hiring that goes with it returns.

“I would expect it to follow the same lines historically,” said John Flanagan, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. “Believe me, I hope it doesn’t.”

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County rose two-tenths of a point to 5.3 percent in December. With increases in each of the last two months, the jobless rate now stands at its highest level since August. At this time last year, the rate was lower at an even 5 percent.

For December, Mesa County payrolls dropped 994 to 68,211. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work rose 170 to 3,855. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, retreated 774 to 72,066.

Over the past year, payrolls have declined 1,119, or about 1.6 percent. The ranks of the unemployed have grown 182. The labor force has shrunk 937 and remains well below peak employment of 84,000 in November 2009.

Flanagan said layoffs in the energy sector related to low oil and natural gas prices continue to affect the Mesa County labor market. The situation is going to continue, he said, until commodity prices and energy development rebounds. Another possibility might occur if an increase in manufacturing enabled local companies to hire more of those who’ve lost energy jobs.

The labor force is likely to continue to shrink as the long-term unemployed lose benefits or move out of the area in search of work elsewhere and aging baby boomers retire, Flanagan said.

An increase in the number of younger people entering the labor market would help reverse the trend, he added.

For the short term, the monthly jobless rate in Mesa County typically spikes in January to its highest level of the year. The unemployment rate hit 6 percent in January of 2015 before edging up to 6.2 percent in February and March. With the exception of a seasonal speed bump in June, the jobless rate trended downward until November.

Flanagan said he expects the unemployment rate to move higher in January and not retreat until seasonal hiring picks up in March or April. The official results won’t be known until March, however, as statistics for 2015 are reviewed and benchmarked.

Meanwhile, the latest labor numbers constituted something of a mixed bag in December for neighboring Western Colorado counties. The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate edged up a tenth of point to 5.3 percent in Delta County and two-tenths of a point to 5.1 percent in Rio Blanco County. The rate held steady at 4.6 percent in Montrose County and slipped two-tenths of point to 3.6 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell a tenth of a point to 3.5 percent.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 10,700 in December with the largest month-over-month gains in the construction, leisure and hospitality and manufacturing sector. The only decline came in the mining and logging sector, which includes oil and natural exploration and development.

Over the past year, the statewide jobless rate has retreated seven-tenths of a point to its lowest level since April 2007.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 46,600 with the biggest year-over-year gains in the leisure and hospitality, construction and education and health services sectors. The largest declines occurred in the professional and business services, information and mining and logging sectors.

Over the past year, the average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls fell seven-tenths of an hour to 33.4 hours. Average hourly earnings increased 71 cents to $27.15.