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Sonoma County unemployment rate drops to five-year low of 6.1 percent


Sonoma County's unemployment rate fell to 6.1 percent in May, as the tourism and wine industries continued to add jobs for the summer vacation season and the coming harvest.

The jobless rate, which stood at 6.5 percent in April and 8.5 percent a year ago, dropped to its lowest level since October 2008, according to the state Employment Development Department.

Business leaders said the data reflected the economic upturn now underway in the county.

"We're getting lots of requests for companies that are looking for talent," said Carolyn Stark, executive director of BEST, or Building Economic Success Together, a local economic development program.

Many businesses have focused on hiring workers with experience, Stark said, a typical occurrence for companies after a prolonged downturn.

"They need people that can pretty much hit the ground running and begin contributing in a fairly quick way to the company," she said.

Of the 10 counties with the lowest unemployment rates in California, six are found in the Bay Area, including Sonoma County, ranked No. 8. Experts see the rankings as a sign of the region's health.

"The economy is recovering much more quickly (in the Bay Area) than in the other areas of the U.S.," said Linda Wong, North Bay labor market consultant for the EDD.

Unemployment soared to 10 percent in Sonoma County in June 2009 and hovered near there for more than two years. The jobless rate didn't stay consistently below double digits until September 2011.

Last month farms and wineries added 1,400 jobs, while leisure and hospitality businesses added 500. About 300 of the hospitality jobs were in restaurants and bars, Wong said. The hiring in both sectors was part of a seasonal pattern.

May marked the 12th straight month where the total number of county jobs was higher than a year earlier. And with few exceptions, the monthly unemployment rate has declined for nearly two years.

"We're headed in the right direction and it's really nice seeing the rate go down month after month," said Steven P. Czegus, manager of the county's Job Link program.

Over the last year, local employers have created 5,100 jobs.

Local government added 1,300 jobs during the past year. Stores, warehouses and trucking companies grew by 1,000 jobs. Construction added 500 jobs, as did the health care and social assistance sector.

During the recession that began in December 2007, the county lost roughly 20,000 jobs. It since has added back about 5,000 jobs, or a quarter of those lost. The total workforce now numbers 181,800 people, excluding domestic workers and the self-employed.

Ben Stone, executive director of the county's Economic Development Board, noted that many economists consider that an economy has reached full employment with a jobless rate at 6 percent. However, he quickly added, "obviously many people still don't have jobs yet."

Even so, Stone said, recovery is underway for many sectors. He noted that the county's hotels, which were some of the first companies to bounce back from the recession, are still reporting growth this year.

Among them is the Fairmont Sonoma Mission Inn & Spa in Boyes Hot Springs, where occupancy is at least 3 percent higher than last year.

"It's a healthy growth because this is a busy time of year," said spokeswoman Michelle Heston.

The hotel is filling positions for the summer season and is close to completing an 18-month-long renovation that included upgrades to 97 rooms in the 1926-era heritage building, as well as improvements to its restaurant, lobby, ballroom and landscaping.

Statewide, unemployment fell below 9 percent for the first time in nearly five years. The jobless rate fell to 8.6 percent in May, compared to 9 percent in April.

The U.S. unemployment rate was essentially unchanged at 7.6 percent.

Unemployment tumbled across the region.

In Mendocino County, unemployment dropped to 7 percent in May, down from 8 percent in April and 9.5 percent a year ago.

In Lake County, unemployment fell to 11.6 percent in May, down from 12.7 percent in April and 14.8 percent a year ago.

In Napa County, unemployment slid to 5.3 percent in May, down from 6 percent in April and 7.5 percent a year ago.