A week before California's stay-home order, unemployment in Kern had already jumped to its highest level in almost six years, according to new data pointing to a seasonal drop in farm work and the beginnings of a wave of layoffs at local restaurants.
Mass layoffs announced since then by a variety of employers, including high-paying oil jobs, suggest April's jobless rate will be much higher.
The county's seasonally unadjusted 12 percent unemployment rate was almost 3 points higher than February's revised estimate. That's based on a survey the state Employment Development Department took March 12, before mass closures of businesses and schools.
1 IN 6?
Cal State Bakersfield economist Richard Gearhart suggested Kern's jobless rate may now be as high as 15.9 percent, judging by recent unemployment insurance applications and other trends.
"This means that about 1 in 6 people in the labor force do not have jobs currently," he wrote in an email.
March figures released by the EDD on Friday show small cracks developing in the state and national economies as well. The state's unadjusted unemployment rate went from 4.3 percent to 5.6 percent, while the national rate rose from 3.8 percent to 4.5 percent.
Gearhart said California's jobless rate may be close to double March's reported rate, perhaps 9.5 percent, judging by recent unemployment insurance filings. He noted that farming employment rose overall across the state while layoffs were concentrated in food services; the category of arts, entertainment and recreation; construction and manufacturing.
Farm layoffs made up 92 percent of the local jobs reported lost in March. The EDD estimated local farms cut 9,300 positions in March, leaving them with about as many workers as they had one year prior, according to EDD figures.
Most other industries fared relatively well at the time of the agency's midmonth survey, though there was little hiring reported and a few industries posted modest job losses.
Three hundred positions were lost in mining, logging and construction, for a month-to-month decline of 1.2 percent. Retail was down 400 jobs at the time, or 1.3 percent.
Restaurants, one of the sectors hit hardest by the stay-home order Gov. Gavin Newsom issued March 19 to slow the spread of COVID-19, shrank 2.7 percent by shedding 600 positions.
Hiring in local education was a seasonal bright spot with the addition of an estimated 400 jobs, bringing up payrolls in that category 1.2 percent.
Until March, Kern's jobless rate had ranged between a high of 9.6 percent in March 2019 to a low of 6.2 percent in September.
Last month's peak was the county's highest since January 2014, according to the EDD. The highest unemployment rate reported for the county in recent years was 17.6 percent in March 2010.
Layoffs reported to local authorities suggest thousands more jobs have been lost since mid-March.
More than 30 local employers have filed notices of job cuts totaling more than 4,300 positions. All have come to county officials since April 1.
Many of the losses are concentrated among retailers, restaurants and dental employers. That's not a complete view because federal rules do not require employers to report cuts of fewer than 50 workers. Also, based on a local pattern during the Great Recession, not all companies report their layoffs.
Employers in local oil fields, especially independents and service companies, have seen jobs evaporate since a roughly 25 percent drop in oil prices in early March. Several hundred positions have been lost, possibly more, in a sector that generally pays well and drives significant local economic activity.