Mesa County labor outlook mixed

Suzie Miller
Suzie Miller

Phil Castle, The Business Times

While the monthly unemployment rate continues to retreat in Mesa County, the growing number of people receiving unemployment benefits tempers the outlook for the local labor market.

The diverging trends reflect seasonal hiring for positions in retail sales, office administration and health care, but also layoffs in the energy sector related to low oil and natural gas prices, said Suzie Miller, business services manager at the Mesa County Workforce Center in Grand Junction.

Even as jobless rates typically slide to their lowest levels of the year heading into the fourth quarter, rates usually spike at the beginning of the first quarter, Miller said. “I think we’re just going to have to wait and see and be in full gear to help people find employment as the first of the year approaches.”

According to the latest estimates from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment, the seasonally unadjusted unemployment rate dropped six-tenths of a point to 4.8 percent in September. The latest rate exactly matches the benchmarked rate for this time last year.

For September 2015, Mesa County payrolls increased 883 to 69,828. The number of people counted among those unsuccessfully looking for work decreased 402 to 3,517. The overall labor force, which includes the employed and unemployed, rose 481 to 73,345.

Over the past year, payrolls have slipped 308 even as the ranks of the unemployment have edged down 48. The overall labor force  has shrunk 356 and remains well below a peak labor force in Mesa County of 84,000 in November 2009.

While the drop in the monthly jobless rate is encouraging, Miller said she’s concerned by increasing numbers for unemployment insurance benefits. A total of 256 initial claims for benefits were filed in Mesa County during September, an increase of  more than 47 percent from the same month last year. Through September 2015, 2,526 claims for unemployment benefits have been filed in 2015, a jump of almost 23 percent over the same span in 2014.

For September 2015, 1,061 people were receiving unemployment benefits in Mesa County, an almost 78 percent increase over the same month last year.

Miller attributed the difference in part to layoffs in the energy sector that’s followed slumping oil and natural gas prices. “There is certainly a huge impact in the slowdown in the industry.”

Labor demand as measure by the number of job orders posted at the Mesa County Workforce Center also has declined. A total of  381 orders were posted in September, down nearly 15 percent from the same month last year. Through September, a total of 4,076 orders have been posted in 2015, down almost 12 percent from the same span in 2014.

Seasonally unadjusted jobless rates also declined in four neighboring Western Colorado counties in September, down seven-tenths of a point to 4.1 percent in Montrose County, down six-tenths to 4.5 percent in Rio Blanco County, down a half point to 5 percent in Delta County and down three-tenths to 3.3 percent in Garfield County.

The statewide seasonally adjusted unemployment rate slipped another two-tenths of a point to 4 percent as nonfarm payrolls increased 2,000.The largest gains were in the leisure and hospitality, professional and business services and manufacturing sectors.

Over the past year, the jobless rate has retreated a half point as nonfarm payrolls have increased 41,500. The largest year-over-year job gains have occurred in the education and health services, leisure and hospitality and constructor sectors.

Over the year, the average workweek for employees on private, nonfarm payrolls has decreased four-tenths of an hour to 33.9 hours. Average hourly earnings have increased 56 cents to $26.90.