Mesa County jobless rate drops to lowest level since early 2009

Phil Castle, The Business Times: 

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County has dropped to its lowest level since early 2009 as the latest labor estimates include an increase in local payrolls of more than 1,000.

The gain is tempered, though, by the announcement Choice Hotels International plans to close its Grand Junction call center at the end of the year and lay off more than 120 employees.

Suzie Miller

“I’ve got mixed emotions about the overall picture,” said Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. “We’ve just got to be cautiously optimistic,” Miller added.

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment (CDLE), the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County dropped six-tenths of a point to 8.1 percent in September. Miller said that’s the lowest level since the jobless rate stood at 7.7 percent in February 2009.

According to the CDLE estimates, Mesa County payrolls rose 1,094 to 75,387. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work fell 461 to 6,654. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, increased 633 to 82,041.

Over the past year, Mesa County payrolls have grown 2,006, a gain of more than 2.7 percent. The ranks of the unemployed have declined 404, or about 5.7 percent.

Miller said the unemployment rate in Mesa County has dropped between August and September in each of the last five years. While seasonal factors could be involved, Miller also attributed the decrease in recent years to hiring at new businesses. Last year, it was American Furniture Warehouse. This year, it was new T. J. Maxx and Tractor Supply outlets.

Labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center remains at its highest level since 2008, before the full effects of a downturn in energy development and the recession were felt. A total of 2,250 job orders were posted at the center from the beginning of the 2012 through September. That’s 14 more orders than were posted for the same span in 2008, Miller said.

For September 2012 alone, 215 job orders were posted. That’s less than the 261 orders posted during September 2011. But Miller said orders in the latest month involved more job openings. Each order usually involves two or more openings and sometimes more.

While Miller said it’s “challenging” not to get excited about the latest drop in unemployment and long-term trend in labor demand, she also remains wary of what’s usually a seasonal increase in the jobless rate in December and January.

That’s to not mention looming layoffs at the Choice Hotels call center. The company announced earlier in October it was closing the center at the end of the year.

About 24 positions will be relocated to Phoenix and 40 more employees who work at home still will have a job with a different company. But more than 120 employees face layoffs.

Miller said she’s hopeful some of those employees will be hired by other companies operating call centers in Grand Junction and federal funds will be available to help pay for retraining others.

Miller said she’s also worried that extended unemployment benefits could expire at the end of the year at a time when the jobless rate typically spikes.

For now, though, seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also fell in neighboring Western Colorado counties in September: down six-tenths of a point to 9.4 percent in Montrose County, down a half point to 7 percent in Garfield County, down four-tenths of a point to 7.5 percent in Delta County and down three-tenths of a point to 4.8 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The seasonally adjusted statewide unemployment rate retreated two-tenths of a point to an even 8 percent in September.

According to CDLE estimates, nonfarm payrolls grew 7,000 in September with a net gain of 4,400 private-sector jobs and another 2,600 government jobs.

Private-sector job gains were reported in the education and health services and trade, transportation and utilities sectors. Manufacturing payrolls declined.

Over the past year, nonfarm payrolls in Colorado have increased 37,300 with gains in the professional and business services, construction and education and health services sectors.

During that same span, the average workweek for employees on private nonfarm payrolls increased nearly an hour to 35.5 hours. Average hourly earnings rose $1.01 to $24.88.