Mesa County jobless rate retreats to lowest level since 2009

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County has slipped below 8 percent for the first time in more than four years as a number of indicators reflect a slowly improving labor market.

The size of the workforce has yet to rebound, however, and finding full-time work remains a challenge for many of those hunting for jobs.

Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction, said the celebration of a retreating jobless rate is tempered by the nearly 6,200 people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work. “I think it’s still a very challenging economic atmosphere for a lot of our community and a lot of our workers.”

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County dropped three-tenths of a point to 7.9 percent in May.

With declines in each of the last four months, the jobless rate has retreated to its lowest level since it stood at 7.5 percent in February 2009 — also the last time the rate was below 8 percent. “We’ve been waiting for that, obviously, for quite some time,” Miller said.

According to the CDLE estimates for May, Mesa County payrolls increased 1,179 to 72,418. The number of people counted among the unemployed slipped 167 to 6,188. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, grew 1,012 to 78,606.

Over the past year, Mesa County payrolls have grown 758, an increase of about 1 percent, while the rolls of the unemployment have decreased 807. The labor force remains slightly smaller by 49. At this time last year, the jobless rate was a full point higher at 8.9 percent.

Even as the monthly unemployment rate has retreated to its lowest level in more than four years, labor demand as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center, remains its highest level in five years.

Miller said 284 job orders were posted during May 2013, more than the 279 orders posted in May 2008, well before dual downturns in energy development and the economy in Western Colorado. Year-to-date numbers for job orders in 2013 also remain ahead of 2008, she said.

The workforce center has hosted a number of hiring events as demand has increased for drivers and construction workers, she added.

Meanwhile, the 243 new filings for unemployment benefits in May 2013 were the fewest since December, Miller said. All those indicators reflect slow, but steady, improvement in the labor market, Miller said.

Still, the labor force has yet to rebound to pre-recession levels. The size of the overall labor force in Mesa County peaked at 84,235 in November 2008.

Miller said there are more part-time than full-time positions opening and wages haven’t yet returned to pre-recession levels.

For May, seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also decreased in four neighboring Western Colorado counties: down a tenth of a point to 6.8 percent in Garfield County, down two-tenths to 5.4 percent in Rio Blanco County, down three-tenths to 7.1 percent in Delta County and down four-tenths to 9.1 percent in Montrose County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate held steady at 6.9 percent as nonfarm payrolls contracted by 5,000.

Over the past year, however, nonfarm payrolls have grown 52,000 with the largest gains in the professional and business services, leisure and hospitality and education and health services sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has edged up a tenth of an hour to 34.7 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased nearly $1 to $25.46.