The jobless rate in Stanislaus County surged to a 12-year high of 16 percent in January, the state reported Thursday.
Merced County rose to 18.9 percent and San Joaquin to 15.1 percent, clear evidence that the recession has hit the region hard.
"It's brutal," said Donald Whann of Modesto as he scanned job listings on a computer at the Alliance Worknet employment service Thursday afternoon. "You wake up in the morning and just dread facing it."
The figures for the three counties, reported by the state Employment Development Department, were about 5 percentage points higher than January 2008.
Each January typically brings a spike in unemployment because of the lull in farm and cannery work, and the end of the holiday retail season.
It's different in 2009, as layoffs ripple through an economy rattled first by the housing collapse and then by trouble in finance, retail, manufacturing and other sectors.
"We're not doing well at this point," said Liz Baker, a labor market analyst for the state agency. "To be at 16 percent is quite troubling."
The rate was the county's highest since the 16.1 percent in February 1997 and the worst January figure since 1996.
Three years ago, as the housing boom was peaking, the county's January rate was just 8.8 percent.
Construction jobs in the county dropped about 10 percent in January 2009 compared with a year earlier. Manufacturing, retail, restaurants and education declined by smaller amounts, while health care rose slightly.
Nationwide, 7.6 percent of the work force was without jobs in January, less than half the county figure but still a 16-year high. The nation's February rate will be released today.
Unemployment in the region likely will stay high well into 2010, as health care and other sectors get drawn in, said Jeff Michael, director of the Business Forecasting Center at the University of the Pacific in Stockton.
"We're in the steepest part of the decline now," he said. "We've got more layoffs to come across the board."
He said the numbers, although bleak, still are not as high as in the early 1990s.
Food processing fairly stable
The county's large food-processing industry is fairly stable, but other sectors could suffer until the economy sorts itself out, said Bill Bassitt, chief executive officer of the Stanislaus County Economic Development and Workforce Alliance.
He said the jobless rate does not include an unknown number of "discouraged workers" — people who want jobs but have stopped looking.
"I would say that because we have had such sustained high unemployment, we have discouraged workers and we have unemployable people," Bassitt said.
Michael said the jobless figure does not include part-time workers who would rather be full time.
The federal stimulus package enacted last month could preserve jobs in education and other sectors, he said, but its tax cuts could be canceled out by state taxes that are about to rise.
Signs of the region's slump are all around. The Mervyns chain shut its doors after Christmas, and Gottschalks, in bankruptcy protection, faces an uncertain future. County Bank failed and was acquired by Westamerica Bank, which is laying off workers as it consolidates operations. Trim Masters, which makes door trim for Toyota trucks, will lay off some of its Modesto workers next month.
The Alliance Worknet, which offers job listings, training and other services, had a steady stream of clients at its 12th Street building Thursday.
Whann, 54, said he is trying to get back to work as an industrial maintenance technician but has had little luck.
'A lot of praying'
Keith Murphy, 61, of Modesto, who was polishing his résumé at a nearby computer, said he hoped to find work again as a law-enforcement records specialist. He has been looking for three months.
"I do a lot of praying," said Murphy, who moved recently from Atlanta. "My friends and relatives are doing a lot of praying for me."
Out on Carpenter Road, about a dozen men stood in the Home Depot parking lot, hoping for a day's work from a contractor or homeowner.
"It's terrible right now," said Santos Avila, 65, of Modesto, who hoped to make $10 an hour in remodeling, painting, pouring concrete or other work. He said such jobs have been hard to get for the past three years.
"A lot of these guys here are doing the same thing I'm doing — looking for labor, an honest job."
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2385.
The January jobless report highlights stark differences between poor and more affluent parts of Stanislaus County. The Shackelford neighborhood in south Modesto had a 42.9 percent unemployment rate, while the area just east of Oakdale was at just 5.9 percent. The report breaks down the numbers by city and by other towns and neighborhoods known as "census designated places." Some of the January figures that went into the overall 16 percent jobless rate: