Mesa County jobless rate trends up, but 2019 still a good year

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Curtis Englehart

The monthly unemployment rate rose in Mesa County for a third straight month, but 2019 still ended as one of the best years on record for the local labor market.

Indicators point to continued improvement in 2020, said Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction. “I think it’s going to be another good year.”

The seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate rose two-tenths of a point to 3.1 percent in December, according to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment.

The monthly jobless has increased six-tenths of a point since September, when the rate fell to 2.5 percent, the lowest level in Mesa County for county level statistics going back to 1990. Unemployment tends to increase at the end of the year as activity slows in construction and other sectors affected by colder weather, Englehart said. At the same time, though, the rate stood at 4.8 percent in December 2018.

For December 2019, Mesa County payrolls decreased 696 from November to 74,984. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work increased 99 to 2,399. The labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, fell 597 to 77,383.

Over the past year, however, payrolls have increased 1,388 or about 1.8 percent. The ranks of the unemployed have decreased 1,304. The labor force has edged up 34.

Englehart said he’s disappointed the labor force has dropped nearly 1,000 since October. He attributed the trend in part to seasonal slowing in sectors affected by the weather.

Overall, 2019 was one of the best years on record for the Mesa County labor market, he said, with monthly jobless rates slipping below 3 percent and the labor force climbing above 78,000.

A total of 7,468 job orders were posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center in 2019. That’s down 8.5 percent from 2018. But those job orders increasingly involve multiple job openings. For December, 421 job orders for a total of 2,041 openings were posted. For the same month in 2018, 484 job orders for a total of 1,042 openings were posted.

A total of 1,888 initial claims for unemployment benefits were filed in Mesa County during 2019. That’s down nearly
4 percent from 2018.

Looking ahead, Englehart said he anticipates another increase in the monthly jobless rate in January, what’s historically a spike to the highest level of the year that follows layoffs after the holidays. January estimates aren’t scheduled for release until March 16 as the state labor department benchmarks information from 2018.

Additional information will be provided in a presentation of the 2019 talent pipeline report scheduled for noon Feb. 27 at the Mesa County Workforce Center. The Colorado Workforce Development Council prepares the annual report analyzing issues related to the supply and demand of talent. For reservations or more information about the free luncheon presentation, call 248-7560.

Englehart expects the jobless rate to trend down after January similar to what happened in 2019. While the energy and health care sectors remain drivers, the labor market has become more diverse. “Across the board we’re seeing positive trends and positive activity.”

For December, unemployment rates were a mixed bag in neighboring Western Colorado counties. The rate edged down a tenth of a point to 2.5 percent in Montrose County and 3.2 percent in Rio Blanco County. The rate rose two-tenths of a point to 2.9 percent in Delta County and remained unchanged at 2.5 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted jobless rate slipped a tenth of a point to 2.5 percent, the lowest level for Colorado for statistics going back to 1976. Nonfarm payrolls increased 1,400.

Over the past year, the state jobless rate dropped 1.1 points. Payrolls swelled 56,000 with the biggest gains in the professional and business services; education and health services; and trade, transportation and utilities sectors.

The average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls held steady at 33.6 hours over the past year. Average hourly earnings rose 89 cents to $30.77.