What Goes Up, Must Come Down … But Not Yet for California’s Jobless Rate

California’s jobless rate inched up yet again in March. Data released this morning show that the state’s unemployment rate rose by 0.1 of a percentage point, from 12.5 percent in February to 12.6 percent in March. However, the good news is that some of the increase in unemployment reflects more individuals going back into the labor force to look for work – a sign of rising optimism about the economy. Indeed, the number of Californians in the workforce – which includes individuals with jobs plus those actively looking for jobs – has increased each month this year, after falling steadily throughout 2009. This means that some of those discouraged individuals who gave up their job search during the worst of the recession are starting to send out resumes again.

Other data released today show that employers are slowly starting to resume hiring. California gained 4,200 jobs in March – a modest number, but one and a half times the number of jobs added in February, and the third straight month of gains. Similarly, the nation’s employers added a small number of jobs in March (162,000), more than half of which were temporary positions, including those related to the federal government’s efforts to conduct the decennial Census. Ongoing hiring related to the Census is expected to boost the employment numbers over the next few months, making the nation’s job market appear a bit healthier than it is.

One positive sign in the latest numbers is that the average length of the workweek is up from its record low last fall. This is good news because many economists anticipate that hiring won’t pick up substantially until existing workers’ hours are restored. Still, there’s a long way to go before the average workweek returns to its pre-recession level.

While there are a few indications that the job market is starting to turn around, millions of Californians are still struggling to make ends meet in the face of long-term job loss. In March, an astounding two out of five of the state’s unemployed had gone without work for more than half a year. Fortunately Congress just passed – and President Obama signed into law – a bill to extend the filing deadline for the Emergency Unemployment Compensation and Extended Benefits programs, which provide additional weeks of unemployment insurance benefits to the long-term jobless.

— Alissa Anderson

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