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Imperial County's Jobless Rate Highest in State

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Calexico's business district | Photo: Yvonne Esperanza/Flickr/Creative Commons License

There's bad news for job-hunters in California's southernmost desert county this Labor Day: figures released by the state's Employment Development Department show that Imperial County once again has the highest unemployment rate in the state, at a shocking 29.9% -- more than three times the national unemployment rate, which rose to 8.3% in July.

Even in chronically underemployed California, with a statewide unemployment rate of 11.9 percent, Imperial County stands out. The county's jobless rate is well ahead of the second-most-jobless county in California, Yuba County in the Sacramento Valley, which had an 18.2% jobless rate in July.

The figures are due in part to Imperial County's sparse population. With a bit more than 107,000 people recorded in the 2010 census, and a workforce made up of about 76,000 of those residents, Imperial County's high unemployment rate means 22,800 people were reported out of work in the county in July. In raw numbers, that's considerably less than the more than half a million Los Angeles County residents reported as looking for work in in the same month.

Still, having nearly a third of a county's workforce on the unemployment rolls is pretty devastating even if other, more populous counties have a higher number of individuals looking for jobs.

Imperial County hovers perennially around the bottom of the employment list of California Counties. Google "Imperial County" and "unemployment" and you see a raft of headlines from the last couple years, some celebrating Imperial's ascent to the second- or third- least employed county in the state, some announcing it has fallen to last place again. Even this month's dire news constitutes an improvement over last year's figures: in August 2011, Imperial County's unemployment rose to 30.2%, and in summer 2010 it reached 32%.

Imperial County's employment is strongly seasonal. The county is an agricultural landscape, and there's a lot less to do in the blazing summer months when the temperature can surpass 120° and agriculture production slows. But even between November and March, when the harvest season for lettuce and other cool-season crops is in full swing, Imperial's unemployment rate runs at a baseline of around 12%. But California's general economic woes have hit the county hard as well. In 2008, Forbes Magazine rated Imperial's largest city El Centro among the five U.S. metro areas with the largest number of homeowners with underwater mortgages: nearly a third of El Centro homeowners owed more on their homes than the homes were worth. The federal Bureau of Labor Statistics ranked the El Centro metro area as the second-worst metro area for jobhunters in July 2012 of 372 U.S. cities studied. The worst metro area on the list was Yuma, Arizona, which would be in Imperial County if not for the state line.

The 2010 Easter Earthquake didn't help much either, and its effects are still being felt in Imperial County. The 7.2 magnitude quake that hit across the border in Baja on April 4, and its scores of aftershocks, did millions of dollars worth of damage to Imperial County cities, with total damage on both sides of the border approaching $100 million. That's money that Imperial County cities didn't have in the first place.

In addition to agriculture, Imperial derives a big chunk of its jobs from government employment, from road crews and administrators to Border Patrol officers. Cutbacks and other factors have hit those jobs hard: of 3,200 jobs the county lost in July, 1,600 were from the government sector.

The prospects for recovery aren't too rosy. Imperial County's planners are staking at least part of their future on the emerging renewable energy industry, hoping to sell sun and wind power to coastal cities, but the majority of jobs coming from those industries are frontloaded into the construction phase. Once a thousand acres of photovoltaic panels is built, it may need only a handful of people to keep it running.

One of the factors swelling the county's jobless figures is that people who once left the county for work lost their jobs elsewhere in California, then came back to spend their unemployment benefits in Imperial, with its lower cost of living. It may be that Imperial County's best hope is for the rest of the state to recover, prompting those who'd once gone to Los Angeles and Riverside to look for better jobs to follow those dreams out of the county once again, reducing the amount of competition for Imperial's few positions.

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