Mesa County jobless rate still on the rise

Phil Castle
Phil Castle

Phil Castle, The Business Times

The monthly unemployment rate in Mesa County continues to rise in part because of layoffs in the energy sector.

But local officials say it’s too early to tell whether the first increase in the February jobless rate in six years is an anomaly or something else. More will be known when March labor statistics are released April 21.

“It’s tough to say. It could be a one-month thing, or it could be the start of a whole new trend,” said Curtis Englehart, human services administrator with the Mesa County Department of Human Services.

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate in Mesa County rose two-tenths of a point to 6.2 percent in February.

The jobless rate in Mesa County typically climbs to its highest level of the year in January following holiday layoffs then moves downward for the remainder of the year. In 2014, the monthly unemployment rate spiked at 8.3 percent in January and dropped to 4.1 percent in October before climbing up to 4.7 percent in December.

The last time the jobless rate increased between January and February was in 2009, when the rate jumped from 6.4 percent to 7.5 percent.

Still, the latest rate remains well below the 8 percent posted for February 2014.

For February 2015, Mesa County payrolls edged up 286 to 68,670. But the number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work also increased — 215 to 4,546. The overall work force, which includes the employed and unemployed, increased 501 to 73,216.

Over the past year, payrolls have grown 1,024, about 1.5 percent. The ranks of the unemployed have retreated 1,328, a decline of nearly 23 percent. The overall labor force has edged down 304 and remains well below the peak before the recession of more than 84,000 in November 2009.

Initial claims for unemployment insurance rose from 310 in January to 352 in February, an increase Englehart attributed in large part to layoffs in the energy sector in turn related to low commodity prices. Many of the people who’ve lost jobs worked elsewhere — on the Front Range or in North Dakota — but live in Mesa County, he said. By comparison, 268 initial claims for unemployment insurance were reported for February 2014.

Even as employment drops in the energy sector, labor demand in other sectors as measured by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction has increased, Englehart said.

A total of 461 job orders were posted at the center during February, up from the 392 orders posted for the same month last year, he said. There are openings for office and administrative positions, sales and food preparation.

As spring weather continues to warm, construction and landscaping firms will ramp up hiring for seasonal positions, he added.

Seasonally unadjusted unemployment rates edged up in most neighboring Western Colorado counties in February: up a tenth of a point to 7.1 percent in Delta County, up two-tenths to 5 percent in Garfield County and up four-tenths to 6.5 percent in Rio Blanco County, In Montrose County, however, the jobless rate fell three-tenths of a point to 6.4 percent.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate remained unchanged for a second straight month at 4.2 percent. At this time last year, the rate stood at 5.6 percent.

Colorado employers added 12,200 net new jobs to nonfarm payrolls in February 2015 with an increase of 8,200 in private sector employment and an increase of 4,000 in government employment.

Over the past year, nonfarm payrolls have grown 79,400 with the biggest gains in the construction, education and health services and leisure and hospitality sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has dropped six-tenths of an hour to 34.4 hours over the past year. Average hourly earnings have increased 51 cents to $26.71.