Mesa County jobless rate down, but so is labor force

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The monthly unemployment rate continues to slip in Mesa County as more people find seasonal work for the holidays.

The local labor force continues to shrink nonetheless with slowing in the energy sector that’s followed slumping prices. Initial claims for unemployment insurance are up even as overall labor demand has lagged.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate slipped a tenth of a point to 4.7 percent in October. That rate is the lowest so far this year, but was slightly lower at 4.5 percent for October 2014.

The downward trend is typical for this time of year as employers hire seasonal help for the holidays, said Curtis Englehart, an administrator with the Mesa County Department of Human Services. If anything, holiday hiring has been a little more pronounced this year with sales activity coming earlier, Englehart said. “I think it’s possibly gaining some steam.”

Still, Mesa County payrolls edged down 91 to 69,333 in October, although the number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work declined 108 to 3,408. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, retreated 199 to 72,741.

Over the past year, payrolls have decreased 1,561, while the ranks of the employed have inched up 32. The  labor force has shrunk 1,529 and remains well below a peak labor force of 84,000 in November 2009.

Englehart attributed the smaller labor force in part to layoffs in the energy industry related to low oil and natural gas prices. Some people who’ve lost their jobs have moved away to look for work elsewhere, he said. Moreover, the local economy hasn’t rebounded to the same extent as other areas of Colorado.

Layoffs in the energy sector also have driven up claims for unemployment benefits, he said. For October, 251 claims were filed in Mesa County, down five from September. But for the 10-month span between January and October, 2,777 claims were filed. That’s up more than 23 percent from the same span last year.

Overall labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction has declined. For October, 454 job orders were posted, down more than 8 percent from the same month last year. For the 10-month span between January and October, 2,251 job orders were posted. That’s down nearly 19 percent from the same span last year.

Englehart said he expects the monthly unemployment rate to hold steady through the end of the year, but then spike in January as people hired for seasonal holiday work lose their jobs. The question is how high the jobless rate will spike and then how quickly and to what extend it will retreat.

Over the longer term, more jobs must become available to counter the declining labor force, he said. There’s no shortage of skilled labor, but rather employment opportunities.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates constituted something of a mixed bag for neighboring Western Colorado counties in October. The jobless rate slipped two-tenths of a point to 4.8 percent in Delta County while edging up a tenth to 3.4 percent in Garfield County and 4.6 percent in Rio Blanco County. Unemployment held steady at 4.1 percent in Montrose County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate retreated another two-tenths of a point to 3.8 percent, the lowest level since August 2007. Nonfarm payrolls grew an estimated 13,000 with the largest gains in professional and business services, construction and financial activities.

Over the past year, the jobless rate has decreased six-tenths of a point as nonfarm payrolls have increased 51,900. The largest year-over-year job gains have occurred in the education and health services, leisure and hospitality and construction sectors.

Over the year, the average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has declined a half hour to 34 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased 77 cents to $27.11.