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Imperial Valley Unemployment Rate Tops 30 Percent

Above: California Super Market, Calexico, California.

Aired 8/22/11 on KPBS Midday Edition.

We'll hear what's on the horizon for increasing employment rates in Imperial County.

Imperial County has had a long struggle with high unemployment rates, but this summer's statistics are more disturbing than usual. The unemployment rate went over 30 percent in July. That is the highest in California, and just about the highest in the nation.

Guest

Carlos Contreras, interim director of the Imperial Valley Workforce Development Board

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: Imperial County has had a long struggle with high unemployment rates, but this summer, statistics are more disturbing than usual. The unemployment rate went over 30% in July. That is the highest in California, just about the highest in the nation. Joining us to talk about why almost one in three Imperial Valley residents are unemployed is my guest, Carlos Contreras. He's interim director of the Imperial Valley work force development board. Thank you for joining us.

CONTRERAS: Thank you for having me.

CAVANAUGH: This 30.2 unemployment statistic for July, did this statistic come as a surprise to you?

CONTRERAS: No. If you were to take a look at our statistics in previous years, our bad months for our area are July, August, and September. That's usually when it goes when -- when we go well beyond a 28% marker that we're pretty much used to. And one of the things in our area that you have to remember upon is that the lowest we've been before is about 26% within this last three years. So running on 32, 30% in these months is usually normal. What makes it a little bit difficult for us this year is that we had a larger number of individuals entering the job market compared to what we had last year.

CAVANAUGH: Remind us, Carlos, what are some of the reasons for this chronic high unemployment in Imperial Valley?

CONTRERAS: Even though there is no adjustment that is done for farm laborer into the statistics, we are highly inspected by the seasonal workers, farm workers in our area. Another thing is that our industry tends to -- we have the schools that during this month, they're barely starting today, so they make an adjustment in and the unemployment will go down. The highest problem that we have is that we still have a lot of jobs are minimum wage jobs. So usually those jobs didn't produce anything else, any new -- for example if you have a job that is about the -- that pays 15 or $18 an hour, the individuals tend to consume other goods and create other jobs. With minimum wage, it's mostly a survival type of deal.

CAVANAUGH: And you say this year, the stats have gone up because people have been coming into Imperial County?

CONTRERAS: Yeah, we've been having that issue for the last three years where individuals were being laid off in other areas, and they were originally from this county, had gone on and followed the construction and manufacturing into Los Angeles, Riverside, and other areas. And now that they're receiving unemployment, they're having the tendency to come back into the valley because of the cost of living is a little bit better than it is in those other areas.

CAVANAUGH: What effect, Carlos, does an unemployment rate of 30% have is on Imperial Valley? Do you see a lot of people who are -- don't have anything to do? What are the kinds of effects that you would see just driving through Imperial County, or what other effects does it have, the ripple effects?

CONTRERAS: The ripple effects we'll start feeling in about three-month, actually. Every time that the percentages go up, we will see in September that the percentage will actually go -- August and September will go up a little bit liar than what it is right now, historically. However, we're way above the 30% marker. Last year we saw around this time at 32%. One of the things that it hadn't done for this county is it hasn't created an impact on crime or anything like that. You do see that less people are shopping, that people are a little bit more apt to not buying things that they would consider to be of luxury. So the impact that it has to us is that it doesn't allow our economy to expand beyond just regular services, regular market services.

CAVANAUGH: I'm speaking with Carlos Contreras, he's interim direct or of Imperial Valley work force development board. We're talking about the unemployment rate that came out for Imperial County in July that was 30.2%. Carlos, what about the sunrise power link? I know as those discussions were going on for years, we kept hearing that approval of that project would produce jobs in Imperial County. Isn't construction under way?

CONTRERAS: Construction is on its way. It hasn't produced as much as we would like at this time. It's not necessarily the power link that will create the jobs, as well as the other solar projects that need to come from there. As you know, the power link will connect other power plants in there, other solar and wind areas that are supposed to be coming into the valley. But without the power link, you can't have the other industries located in here.

CAVANAUGH: That's something that you're hoping for down the road?

CONTRERAS: We are. One of the things we have to be cautious about is that it will have a positive impact for us for about 3 to 5†years, then once the plants are running, and the construction jobs are gone, and then we will go back again to looking at some of the numbers that we're currently looking at in unemployment.

CAVANAUGH: Carlos, is there anything you wish the state or the federal government would do to help Imperial Valley?

CONTRERAS: One of the things I think that the state could do is when they do the reporting of the unemployment, they need to consider the adjustment to farm laborer so that it reflects the true numbers. I believe that we're always above five% more than what we see on the books. There is some areas where they have to begin to authorize areas that are going to produce electricity, whether it's solar or wind, and we need to be cautious of the type of jobs that those are going to produce so that we're able to train individuals in that area. The other thing is that we need to look for industries that produce something in the areas of manufacturing for outside of the county and not necessarily just be producing in this area. And right now, with the release of prisoners, that's going to have an impact on us. I think at first it'll be probably positives since they're hooking at Imperial County to possibly expanding the jails areas. But then once those jobs are gone, then the sustainability isn't there.

CAVANAUGH: I want to thank you very much for speaking with us today. I've been speaking with Carlos Contreras, he's interim director of the Imperial Valley work force development board. Thank you so much, Carlos.

CONTRERAS: Thank you very much.

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