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Yuma's Unemployment Woes

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Yuma's Unemployment Woes

Yuma's Unemployment Woes

Yuma County was once seen as a promising economic hub in southwestern Arizona, but its unemployment rate is nearly three times the national average. Even during the best of times, economists say the heavily agricultural-based economy has high unemployment compared to most other border towns. And these aren't the best of times.

Meet Sasha Geana, a 26-year-old who worked in a medical office as a clerk until the company downsized and cut her hours.

"I can't be home just waiting so I come to see if there might be something new," Geana said.

Sasha's applied for nearly a dozen jobs in Yuma County using a non-profit jobs program called the Yuma Private Industry Council or YPIC.

It's a scene in the office that's all too common here. At 27 percent, Yuma County's unemployment rate is the second worst in the country, just behind neighboring Imperial County, California. An average of 2,500 people come in to YPIC every day, looking for work.

Some, like Richard Hernandez, have few job skills and are looking for holiday seasonal work. Today, Toys R Us is hiring.

"I just messed up. Probably about two years ago, they hooked me up with a job," Hernandez said. "For whatever reason I just stopped going to work. And things have gotten a little bit rough in the economy and everything so I decided to come back. So I asked for assistance again and I gotta start all over from the beginning."

Others, like Steven Mills, lost their jobs after local companies shut down. He worked at a call center and was laid off this year.

"They had 400 employees. T-Mobile said, 'Oh I'm sorry, we're not renewing the contract this year,'" Mills said. "The whole company closed down and they sent everybody home."

The last few months for Yuma County have been brutal. The region lost four major employers and nearly 1,000 jobs. The biggest blow came in September when the Dole salad plant closed its doors and nearly 700 people lost their jobs.

Drive up Yuma Palms Parkway and you'll find empty big box stores. Vacant lots dominate the landscape. Even a Sears closed down.

Cynthia Marshall is YPIC's business services director. She said the recession may be technically over, but there's more trouble ahead.

"Factory2U is another retail store that is closing. A local credit union has still laid off some," Marshall said. "We also know of a small insurance company. When that stops happening, then maybe we'll feel wow, we're over the hump of it, but we're not there yet."

So how do you solve all this? Julie Engel is President of the Greater Yuma Economic Development Corporation. Her solution: Inundate the world with grants.

"We want to look at any opportunity that is out there. Right now, USDA and HUD, those programs have a lot of the stimulus moneys," Engel said. "We need to see those moneys come back here, whether you agree with the stimulus program or not. It's going to happen and we need to see the money come to Arizona. We really need need to see it come to the area that has been dubbed the most distressed in the nation."

She's asked local leaders to put every staffer they can spare on grant writing duty, using the county's high unemployment to drive funding into Yuma.

Yuma mayor Al Krieger said YPIC's efforts are well-intended, but pricey and ineffective.

"There's no jobs here," Krieger said. "YPIC's budget is $10 million and you could have double that amount of money, but if there's no job for a person that's been trained by YPIC to go to, I don't understand how that equation works."

YPIC's budget comes from workforce development funds and stimulus money. Yuma, Krieger said, is going to need more than low-skill service industry jobs if it is going to prosper.

Fronteras Desk senior editor Michel Marizco is an award-winning investigative reporter based in Flagstaff.