Mesa County jobless rate jumps

Curtis Englehart

A year that brought big swings in unemployment in Mesa County ended with an increase as the effects of the coronavirus pandemic and seasonal layoffs combined to push the jobless rate higher.

The year ahead could be different, though, if vaccines and proactive business measures prove effective, said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. “I feel like we’re in a great spot to be in a quicker recovery.”

According to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate climbed to 8.2 percent in December. That’s up 2.1 points from a revised rate of 6.1 percent in November. At this time last year, the rate stood at 3.1 percent.

For 2020, the monthly unemployment rate ranged from a low of 4.1 percent in January and February to a high of 12.6 percent in April as the effects of the pandemic and related restrictions pushed the rate to one of its highest levels ever in Mesa County. The jobless rate retreated from July to September, but then advanced in the last two months of the year.

For December, Mesa County payrolls decreased 1,419 to 73,344. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased 1,719 to 6,536. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, grew 300 to 79,880.

Compared to a year ago, payrolls shrank 523 as the ranks of the unemployed swelled 4,162. The labor force grew 3,639.

Englehart attributed the increase in the jobless rate in December to the ongoing effects of the pandemic and related restrictions on businesses as well as seasonal layoffs.

A total of 1,311 new filings for unemployment benefits were reported in December. That’s a nearly 10-fold increase over the 148 filings for the same month last year, Englehart said.

One measure of labor demand increased in December with 666 job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center. That’s up from 421 orders posted during the same month last year. For all of 2020, however, 6,646 orders were posted. That’s down from 7,463 orders posted in 2019.

The monthly jobless rate historically spikes in January because of layoffs after the holidays and the effects of winter weather on construction and other outdoor activities.

Englehart said he expects that will be the case again this year, but monthly jobless rates will trend down starting in March.

The outlook depends on the how quickly COVID-19 vaccines are administered and the effects of more widespread vaccinations on businesses and hiring, he said.

Proactive efforts to keep businesses open — including a variance protection program enabling businesses that meet public health guidelines to operate under less restrictive conditions — should position Mesa County to recover more quickly, he said.

Moreover, a growing number of people are moving to Mesa County to take advantage of lower housing prices and the proximity to outdoor recreation, he said. Some of those people work remotely and can live nearly anywhere. Others relocate, then look for jobs.

A collaborative effort of the Mesa County Workforce Center, Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce and Grand Junction Economic Partnership called FamilyWorks offers help to so-called trailing spouses who follow husbands and wives to new locations because of work assignments, he said.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also increased in December in neighboring Western Colorado counties: up 1.8 points to 7.4 percent in Delta County and 6.5 percent in Rio Blanco County, up 1.7 points to 7.2 percent in Montrose County and up 1.2 points to 7.1 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose two points to 8.4 percent in December as nonfarm payrolls decreased 20,300 from November.

Over the past year, the state jobless rate has increased four-fold as payrolls have decreased nearly 151,000. Since May, the state has gained back 191,500 of the 342,300 jobs lost during the onset of the pandemic between February and April.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls shortened a half hour to 33.3 hours. Average hourly earnings increased 18 cents to $31.