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High unemployment rates remain a problem for Arizona rural areas

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YUMA – After losing her job at McDonald’s, Crystal Ryan has been without work for a year and is scrambling to support her 1-year-old son.

After submitting 20 to 30 applications, she isn’t picky about where she would work.

“It kind of breaks your self-esteem,” Ryan said as she reviewed job postings recently at the Yuma Private Industry Council, a non-profit organization that operates a job-resource center. “You can get an interview here, but you can’t get the job.”

Crystal Ryan reviews job postings at the Yuma Private Industry Council’s career resource center. Ryan is one of the many unemployed of Yuma County, where the rate for August, 2011 was the highest in Arizona. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Victoria Pelham)

In a state where unemployment remains high as much of the rest of the nation recovers from the Great Recession, Yuma stands out. The metropolitan area’s jobless rate of 15.9 percent in August was the nation’s second highest, trailing only nearby El Centro, Calif., according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Meanwhile, Yuma County’s unemployment rate for the month was 29.4 percent, by far the highest in Arizona.

Unemployment remains high elsewhere in rural Arizona, with Santa Cruz and Apache counties following Yuma at 18.4 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Unemployment was at 12 percent with residents of rural areas in 2010, as compared to 9.7 percent in Arizona’s urban areas, according to the Department of Agriculture’s Economic Research Service.

In June, the Legislature declined Gov. Jan Brewer’s push to accept extended unemployment benefits offered by the federal government for those who have used up state and federal benefits. The governor had cited rural unemployment as a reason to do so.

Amid all of this, people such as Roberto Vazquez struggle to find scarce work in rural areas. Despite speaking three languages and having experience as an office manager, he has been unable to find work for three months since losing his job with Wal-Mart in Yuma.

“I have a little bit of trouble getting a job, but I have to be positive to get a job,” Vazquez said as he waited at the Yuma Private Industry Council.

Yuma’s jobless figures are especially high due to the seasonal nature of agricultural hiring. The county, which is one of the country’s largest lettuce producers, offers jobs during the peak produce season beginning around November, but those same workers file for unemployment when the agricultural work is no longer available, said Patrick Goetz, education and training manager for the Yuma Private Industry Council.

Patrick Goetz is an education and training manager for the Yuma Private Industry Council, a non-profit organization that runs a resource center in Yuma, Arizona, dedicated to helping people find employment. Yuma’s current unemployment rate is one of the highest in the country. (Cronkite News Service Photo by Victoria Pelham)

The economic downturn forced the loss of state jobs and closures of businesses, sending the numbers even higher, he said.

“We work really hard working with folks that are unemployed,” Goetz said. “But you know, there’s just a lot of things that contribute to even a bad situation.”

Jobs tend to consolidate in metropolitan areas, according to Marshall Vest, director of of the Economic and Business Research Center at the University of Arizona’s Eller College of Management.

“Many of the counties in the areas outside the two big metros, there just simply aren’t a lot of jobs,” he said.

Karen McLaughlin, director of budget and research for the Children’s Action Alliance, an advocacy group addressing issues affecting Arizona’s children, said not extending unemployment benefits had a disproportionate impact on rural areas.

“It just was unfortunate for the people who were in that situation because they still don’t have jobs probably today and now they’ve lost their benefit which was not very high to begin with,” she said.

Unemployment benefits range from $60 to $240 per week depending on a person’s previous income.

And that money is important in smaller communities McLaughlin said.

“We know it reverberates through the local economy really quickly,” she said. “Towns that have really high unemployment, they’re going to be suffering because that money’s not there anymore.”

The Yuma Private Industry Council’s jobs center, where the number of visitors per week has jumped from about 250 to between 500 and 600 over the past two years, provides job workshops and listings, resume services and more. But even that isn’t going to help everyone, Goetz said.

“The unemployment rate is so high and the competition is so fierce,” he said.

Ryan said her aunt went through the same program and found a job, so she is hoping to follow in her footsteps.

“But it’s just hard every time you do lose a job, you try to find a job again and it’s not easy,” she said.

Rural unemployment in August:

• Apache County 16 percent
• Cochise County 8.5 percent
• Coconino County 7.9 percent
• Gila County 10.2 percent
• Graham County 11.1 percent
• Greenlee County 8.6 percent
• La Paz County 10.9 percent
• Mohave County 10.2 percent
• Navajo County 14.9 percent
• Pinal County: 11 percent
• Santa Cruz County 18.4 percent
• Yavapai County 9.9 percent
• Yuma County 29.4 percent
• Statewide: 9.4 percent

Rates are not seasonally adjusted.

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