ANAHEIM — If Orange County's recession is beginning to turn around, as Chapman University economists recently asserted, that glimmer of hope has yet to be reflected in unemployment figures.
The May unemployment rate for the county climbed to 5.9% from April's 5.7%, according to the state Employment Development Department. That translates into 80,000 county residents looking for work, an increase of 3,200 from the previous month.
May's unemployment level is the county's highest monthly rate since the 5.9% reported for January, 1984. A year ago, 4.8% of the county's labor force--about 63,600 residents--was unemployed.
"It's no surprise that unemployment hasn't moved very much, given that there hasn't been any real uptick in the economy," said John DiNardo, assistant professor of economics at UC Irvine.
Numerous layoffs by Orange County companies during May contributed to the rise in unemployment. Among those that trimmed staff were fast-food chain Carl Karcher Enterprises and land owner-developer Irvine Co.
Though the figures are less than cheery, Orange County can at least take some comfort in the fact that it has the lowest unemployment rate in Southern California, according to the state agency. Neighboring Los Angeles County registered 9.8%, Riverside County 11.8%, San Bernardino County 9.5%, San Diego County 7.1% and Ventura County 6.9%.
"We have a highly educated labor force, a diversified economy and a large employment base," said Esmael Adibi, director of the Center for Economic Research at Chapman University in Orange.
The state agency's monthly figures are not adjusted for seasonal ups and downs, economists point out, and can't truly be compared with state and national rates. California's adjusted unemployment level during May was 8.7%, and the nation's rate was 7.5%.
"During the summer, when students are out of school, there is a large pool of young job hunters who affect the unemployment rates," DiNardo said, explaining a major aspect of the seasonal fluctuations.
Orange County's unemployment rates should hover at the current high level for another two or three months, Adibi said.
"The figures will remain confused throughout the summer as teen-age job applicants enter the market," he said.
Earlier this month, Chapman economists declared that the recession had bottomed out in Orange County, leaving the economy with nowhere to go but up. Despite the latest unemployment statistics, Adibi stood by that prediction.
People who stop looking for jobs typically aren't counted in unemployment figures. So a higher rate, he said, could mean that more people have resumed the search because they are now encouraged by the prospects of finding work.
"At the end of a recession, unemployed people who have felt discouraged about looking for work return to the job market," he said.
While the jobless rate grew, the number of jobs available in Orange County last month remained unchanged from the previous month at 1,141,800. The number of jobs in the county reflects the relative health of the local economy, while the unemployment rate among county residents illustrates broader regional concerns.
Since the economic downturn began nearly two years ago, county businesses have cut about 65,000 jobs from their payrolls. Since May, 1991, the total number of full-time and part-time jobs has declined by 31,700.
Construction employment, which generally improves during warmer months, gained 1,200 new jobs between April and May. Manufacturing, however, lost 1,400 jobs.
Orange County Unemployment Up Orange County's jobless rate of 5.9% for May is the thrid highest in 10 years. Highest Since Early '80s The jobless rate for the month of May since 1982: '82: 7.1% '92: 5.9% O.C. Faring Better Though a 5.9% jobless rate is considered high here, Orange County is faring better than the rest of Southern California, the state and the nation. Orange: 5.9% Ventura: 6.9 San Diego: 7.1 San Bernardino: 9l5 Los Angeles: 9.8 Riverside: 11.8 California: 8.7 U.S.: 7.5 Source: State Employment Development Department