Mesa County jobless rate retreats to lowest level since onset of pandemic

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Curtis Englehart

With drops in each of the last three months, the unemployment rate has retreated in Mesa County to the lowest level since before the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is a really good sign for us,” said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

While a labor shortage persists, employers willing to offer more flexibility and higher wages have fared better in filling openings, Englehart said. 

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate fell nine-tenths of a point to 4.8 percent in Mesa County in September, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. That’s the lowest level since the rate stood at 4.1 percent in February 2020. At this time last year, the rate stood at 6.4 percent.

For September 2021, Mesa County payrolls increased 1,136 to 73,463. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work decreased 630 to 3,720. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, grew 506 to 77,183.

Compared to a year ago, payrolls increased 1,460. The ranks of the unemployed decreased 1,235. The labor force grew 225.

An end to a federal stipend added to unemployment benefits motivated some people to rejoin the work force. But the latest numbers also reflect other factors, Englehart said. “I think it’s a combination of things.”

What’s been a surge in job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has leveled off as employers fill more of those openings, he said. “That’s not a bad thing.”

Employers have responded to demands for more flexibility and the option to work from home as well offered higher wages, he said.

For September, 1,020 job orders were posted, Englehart said. That’s the lowest number since March. Through the first three quarters of 2021, 8,617 orders were posted. That’s nearly double the orders posted for the same span last year and more than the 6,646 orders posted for all of 2020.

Englehart said he expects strong hiring to continue through the fourth quarter of 2021 to fill not only fill existing openings, but also seasonal positions for the holidays. The recent openings of Dillards and Dick’s Sporting Goods at Mesa Mall in Grand Junction and related hiring will bolster labor numbers.

But the labor market also could be affected by employees who quit their jobs rather than comply with COVID-19 vaccination mandates, he said.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also declined in neighboring Western Colorado counties in September: six-tenths of a point to 4 percent in Garfield County, nine-tenths of a point to 4.1 percent in Delta County and 4.2 percent in Montrose County and a point to 4.2 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate fell three-tenths of a point to 5.6 percent even as nonfarm payrolls increased 5,100 between August and September.

Over the past year, payrolls have increased 102,100 with the biggest gains in the leisure and hospitality; professional and business services; and trade, transportation and utilities sector. Manufacturing and construction payrolls declined.

Over the past 17 months, Colorado has regained 297,900 of the 375,800 jobs lost between February and April 2020 because of the pandemic and related restrictions.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has lengthened over the past year six-tenths of an hour to 33.5 hours. Average hourly earnings increased $1.44 to $32.46.