Mesa County jobless rate seesaws back up

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The unemployment rate in Mesa County has seesawed back up to its highest level of the year as layoffs mount in the energy industry and support businesses.

While seasonal hiring in landscaping and construction could help in improving local labor conditions, big swings in the jobless rate aren’t anticipated in either direction.

“I think I would kind of anticipate it would be stagnant,” said Celina Kirnberger, business services supervisor at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County rose a half point to 5.9 percent in March.

The jobless rate climbed to 5.6 percent in January and retreated to 5.4 percent before increasing again in March. The rate was higher still, though, at 6.4 percent in March 2015.

For March 2016, Mesa County payrolls edged up 163 to 68,356. But the number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased more — 346 to 4,273. The overall work force, which includes the employed and unemployed, increased 509 to 72,629.

Over the past year, payrolls have increased 714, or about 1 percent. The ranks of the unemployed have decreased 347. The overall work force has edged up 367, but remains well below the peak labor force in Mesa County of 84,000 in November 2009.

Kirnberger said the March increase in the unemployment rate defied what’s historically been a decline for the month. “It’s definitely not moving in the right direction.”

The latest estimates reflect the accumulative effects of layoffs in the oil and natural gas industry related to low commodity prices and, in turn, layoffs at businesses providing support services, Kirnberger said. “Now those numbers are catching up with us.”

For March, 331 initial claims for unemployment insurance were reported for Mesa County. That’s up from 313 for the same month last year. For the first quarter of 2016, 966 claims for jobless benefits were reported. That’s down nine from the first quarter of 2015.

A measure of labor demand in the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center has decreased. For March, 448 orders were posted, down 37 from the same month last year. For the first quarter of 2016, 1,046 job orders were posted. That’s down 275 from the first quarter of 2015.

Kirnberger said seasonal hiring in the landscaping and construction sectors could increase as the weather warms, but probably not enough to significantly drive down unemployment rates. Rather, she said she expects jobless rates to hold steady.

Meanwhile, seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates also rose in neighboring Western Colorado counties in March: up two-tenths of a point to 4 percent in Garfield County and 4.7 percent in Montrose County, up three-tenths of a point to 5.6 percent in Delta County and a half point to 5.9 percent in Rio Blanco County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate edged down a tenth of a point in March to 2.9 percent. That’s the lowest reading since the jobless rate stood at 2.8 percent in February 2001.

Nonfarm payrolls increased 5,500 in March for a 53rd straight month of gains. Hiring increased in the construction and leisure and hospitality sectors, while layoffs occurred in the mining and logging and business and professional services sectors.

Over the past year, the state unemployment rate has retreated  1.1 points even as nonfarm payrolls have increased 71,000. The largest gains have occurred in the leisure and hospitality, education and health services and construction sectors. Employment in mining and logging has declined.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has shortened 1.2 hours to 33.2 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased 54 cents to $27.35.