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A “help wanted” sign hangs outside a store on Morley Avenue in Nogales on Nov. 2.

The official unemployment rate in Santa Cruz County fell last month to within less than a percentage point of where it stood just prior to the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

But while the addition of new jobs helped push the unemployment rate down, the numbers were also aided by an even larger decline in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits, as well as a slight contraction in the size of the local workforce.

According to a report published last Thursday by the Arizona Department of Economic Opportunity, the local jobless rate fell to 7.9 percent in October from 9.4 percent in September. That was the lowest unemployment rate in Santa Cruz County since February 2020, when it was 7.2 percent.

The report showed that the local economy added 195 jobs in October. Still, the 17,541 people employed in the county last month was fewer than in both January and March of this year, and below the pre-pandemic mark of 18,442 in February 2020.

A larger change last month came in the number of people seeking unemployment benefits in Santa Cruz County, which dropped by 282 to 1,513. That was half the number reported in April 2020, the first full month following the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic.

It was also the lowest number of unemployment claims in the county in any month since February 2020, when 1,431 people here applied for benefits.

Overall, the county’s total workforce shrank last month, from 19,141 people in September to 19,054 in October. July was the only month this year in which the Arizona Department of Economic Opportunity reported a smaller civilian labor force in the county than in October.

The employment trends in Santa Cruz County are similar to the United States as a whole. The Associated Press cited estimates earlier this month that employers added 400,000 jobs in October, more than twice the jobs added in September, and it noted that the four-week average of unemployment claims dropped to a pandemic low by late October. But the AP also reported that the United States was still 5 million jobs short of where it stood in February 2020.

Factors that might have contributed to the addition of new jobs last month in Santa Cruz County include seasonal hiring in the local produce import sector, and new hirings by retailers following the U.S. government’s announcement on Oct. 12 that it would lift border travel restrictions starting this month.

Factors that have been cited as playing a role in employment trends nationwide, and that may be at play here as well, include the end of enhanced unemployment aid efforts in September, and the fact that some people have dropped out of the labor market.

“Millions of unemployed Americans remain at home even after the expiration of generous federal government-funded benefits, the reopening of schools for in-person learning and companies raising wages,” the Reuters news agency reported last week.

According to the state report issued last Thursday, Arizona’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 5.2 percent in October, from 5.7 percent in September. And while Santa Cruz County’s rate improved by 1.5 percentage points, it still had the second-highest jobless rate among Arizona’s 15 counties, trailing only Yuma at 12.4 percent.

The U.S. seasonally adjusted unemployment rate decreased to 4.6 percent in October from 4.8 percent in September.

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