Employers in Fresno County sliced more than 5,000 jobs from their payrolls between December and January, driven largely by cuts in retail positions after the holiday shopping season.
Collectively, the reductions sent the county’s unemployment rate above 10 percent for the first time in nine months. But the rate was below the unemployment mark in January 2016 and marked the best January in 10 years.
Figures released Friday by the state Employment Development Department estimated Fresno County’s unemployment rate at 10.6 percent. That’s up from 9.4 percent in December. But the rate was below where it was in January 2016, continuing a string of 64 months in which the monthly unemployment rate was lower than it was a year earlier. Fresno County’s jobless rate in January 2016 was reported at 10.7 percent.
This was the lowest January unemployment rate for the county since 2007, when the rate was estimated at 9.3 percent.
Similar patterns were reported in most neighboring Valley counties.
Across Fresno County, total employment across all industries was down by 5,200 compared to December. Jobs in nonfarm industries were down by 5,600, but was partially offset by a 400-job gain in farm employment. The winter months typically are part of a seasonal slump in farm jobs, with little agricultural activity happening until things pick up again in the springtime.
The largest month-to-month job losses were reported in the trade/transportation/utilities sector, led by post-holiday cuts of about 2,200 jobs in retail stores. Significant after-holiday losses also showed up in the leisure/hospitality industry, including about 1,000 jobs in restaurants – including fast-food operations – and bars.
California’s unemployment rate dipped to 5.1 percent in January, down from 5.2 percent in December. The nation’s unemployment rate in January was estimated at 4.8 percent, up slightly from 4.7 percent in December.
Worse than state, nation
Despite the months of year-over-year improvement, Fresno County and the rest of the Valley continue to experience unemployment rates that are substantially higher than either the state or national averages.
And that is not a situation that is likely to change in the near future, said Michael Bernick, a San Francisco employment attorney and former director of the state Employment Development Department.
“It’s nothing new that the Valley and other agricultural parts of our state have for many years had significantly higher unemployment than the state, often double or more,” Bernick said Friday. “It’s a phenomenon we’ve seen for decades … because of the seasonal nature and the agricultural base of Valley employment.”
What is different over the past 20 years “is how much the coastal economies have moved ahead in ways the inland economies haven’t,” he added. “The gap between job growth in coastal areas and the Central Valley has not narrowed, but has increased.”
Bernick said he believes there are several paths that California and its inland regions can take to begin narrowing that gap, including California’s high-speed rail project that is much maligned by opponents in the politically conservative Valley.
“High-speed rail is more important to economic growth in the Central Valley than anything else for connecting that economy to other parts of the state,” he said. “Beyond that, California needs to direct additional resources, whether workforce development or economic development funds, to the Central Valley. And there can be more state government offices in the Valley as we have new state employment.”
The idea, Bernick said, is to try to build a more diversified economy in the Valley. “People have been talking about that since at least 1979,” he said. “It’s not easy, but it should continue to guide where state resources are put.”
Employment estimates within industries are based on a statewide survey of employers, while the unemployment rate is derived from a federal survey of households and calculated as a proportion of the available work force: people who are working, and people who are available and looking for work.
The unemployment figures, however, don’t account for students or retirees who aren’t looking for work, nor do they include people often characterized as “discouraged workers” or long-term unemployed who have given up their search for work and are not counted among the labor force.