Valley unemployment rates are higher than a year ago. But is that reason for alarm?

Amazon unveils its massive Fresno fulfillment center

Amazon officials gave a sneak peek tour of its new 855,000- square-foot innovative, customer fulfillment center, prior to its mid-2018 opening in Fresno. It features conveyor lines and robots that ferry merchandise to workers for processing.
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Amazon officials gave a sneak peek tour of its new 855,000- square-foot innovative, customer fulfillment center, prior to its mid-2018 opening in Fresno. It features conveyor lines and robots that ferry merchandise to workers for processing.

For the second time this year, Fresno County’s unemployment rate was above where it was a year earlier – the first time that’s happened in eight years.

In fact, 56 out of California’s 58 counties saw similar year-over-year increases in the jobless rate since March 2018, according to figures released Friday by the state Employment Development Department.

But because the overall number of people working grew in March, both from a year earlier and since February 2019, experts say that’s not enough to sound alarm bells about a potential slowdown in economic growth in the state.

In Fresno County, the unemployment rate was estimated at 9.4 percent in March. That was three-tenths of a percentage point higher than March 2018. January’s unemployment rate of 8.9 percent was also higher than a year prior. The last time Fresno County saw two months of year-over-year increases in the same year was in June and August of 2011, when the rates were between 15.5 and 16.5 percent.

A year-over-year look at unemployment is typically considered a more reliable indicator of long-term economic trends than month-to-month figures that can experience substantial swings because of the seasonal nature of some industries, such as retail, construction and agriculture.

But in Fresno County and across the state, more people have jobs than a year ago. That remains a positive sign for the economy of the Valley and the state, said employment analyst Michael Bernick, a San Francisco attorney and Milken Institute fellow who served as director of the state employment department from 1999 to 2004.

“At 9.4 percent, Fresno County’s unemployment rate has gone up, but until recent years the rate was in double digits” above 10 percent, Bernick told The Bee on Friday. “In a wider perspective, these rates in the Central Valley and in Northern California counties are still well below what we’ve seen for most of the past 30 years.”

Employers statewide added more than 24,000 nonfarm payroll jobs between February and March. Since March 2018, nonfarm payroll employment was up by 238,500 jobs, according to EDD estimates.

“We continue to see payroll job gains. That 24,000 is considerably more than what we’ve seen in the last two months,” Bernick added. “The pace of job gains hasn’t dropped, but unemployment rates are up, probably because more people are getting into the job market.”

Fresno County’s nonfarm private-sector employers had about 285,000 employees in March, up from 272,000 a year ago. The industry sector with the highest rate of new jobs was transportation/warehousing, where the opening of new e-commerce and distribution warehouses by retailers Amazon and Ulta Beauty likely helped drive the addition of 2,200 jobs, an increase of 19.4 percent.

Jobs in private-sector health and education businesses grew by 13.6 percent, or about 5,600 jobs in that industry in Fresno County.

“My sense is that overall, the numbers still show an economy that has historically low unemployment and high job growth,” Bernick said.

Lenny Mendonca, the chief economic and business adviser to California Gov. Gavin Newsom, cheered the additional new jobs in the state, but added that more needs to be done to improve training and job prospects in the Valley, where unemployment rates historically run several percentage points higher than the state even in good economic times.

“California employers added 24,500 nonfarm payroll jobs in March, signaling a continuation of the economic expansion that began in March 2010. While California’s unemployment increased to 4.3 percent, it did so from a near historic low of 4.2 percent in February, … ” Mendonca said in a written statement. “In order for our economy to deliver sustainable and inclusive growth across the state, we must continue our efforts – across the public and private sectors – to bring skills training and quality jobs to all communities in California, especially those in our heartland.”

The number of people receiving regular unemployment insurance benefits were also down in March compared to both a month earlier and a year ago. The EDD reported that beneficiaries in March numbered 387,767, compared to almost 389,500 in February and more than 403,000 in March 2018.

Californians, however, filed nearly 40,000 new claims for unemployment last month, up by more than 5,000 from February. It’s an increase of fewer than 150 compared to March 2018.

Lifelong Valley resident Tim Sheehan has worked in the Valley as a reporter and editor since 1986, and has been at The Fresno Bee since 1998. He is currently The Bee’s data reporter and covers California’s high-speed rail project and other transportation issues. He grew up in Madera, has a journalism degree from Fresno State and a master’s degree in leadership studies from Fresno Pacific University.