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El Centro, Calif., maintains 30% jobless rate

Southern California agriculture area continues to suffer higher metropolitan area rate. More urban areas face severe unemployment.

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By Hibah Yousuf, CNNMoney.com staff reporter

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- El Centro, Calif., held its position of having the highest unemployment rate among the nation's metropolitan areas, with the jobless rate at 30%, according to government figures released Wednesday.

While the figure fell from a revised 32.2% in September, it climbed from 26.8% a year ago and it is staggering even against the nation's 10.2% unemployment rate, which is at a 26-year high.

But the jobless picture has always been inferior in southern California's Imperial Valley.

"Our area typically has a high unemployment rate around 17%, so the hike is modeled after what the rest of the country has experienced," said Cathy Kennerson, chief executive of the El Centro Chamber of Commerce. In 2006, El Centro's unemployment rate ranged between 12.2% and 18.4%.

Double digits are normal in the good times in the desert just east of San Diego because it is an agricultural area and the farming workforce collects unemployment for half of the year.

But the real estate bust has really put the area over the edge.

"We have a lot of seasonal agricultural jobs, but our economy is the worst I have ever seen it and it doesn't seem to be recovering," said Jim Duggins, 62, owner of Duggins Construction in Imperial, Calif.

Duggins has had to cut his company's workforce by more than 80% to 22 employees from 120 due to the downturn. And if things don't turn around, he'll have to make another round of cuts.

"We're surviving, but we're back to the basics of when we started in the 1960s," said Duggins, who has eliminated workers that been with his company for more than 30 years. "If we make it, we might only come out with six employees."

To outlast the economic crisis, Duggins Construction has adapted its business from a new commercial construction focus to include remodels and renovations. But until banks loosen their grips and start lending again, Duggins said business won't return to normal.

"Lenders have gone from one extreme to another. Before, you could get a loan with just a signature. Now we joke that if you want a $500,000 loan, you better have $500,000 sitting in the bank," he said. "Banks just need to go back to how they were doing business in the late 1970s and 1980s, where they are lending so that people can put that money back into the economy and get it going."

But everyone has been hit hard in El Centro. The unemployment rate has been above 30% since July, peaking in August at 33.1%, but is beginning to subside. And the holiday season might brighten the picture.

"It's more the perception of having the highest unemployment rate in the country that is harder to deal with than the actual rate," said Larry Bratton, a jewelry store owner in El Centro, who hasn't had to lay off any employees during the recession.

"It looks like we're on the short end of the stick, but we're not like Detroit, where an entire industry has collapsed," said Bratton, 63, who purchased Brooks Jewelry with his late wife in 1977. Like other retailers, Bratton will be adding temporary workers in his store during the holiday season.

Metro areas nationwide. The Labor Department said 124 of 372 metropolitan areas surveyed suffered unemployment rates of at least 10% or more last month, up from 117 cities in September.

The number of areas with unemployment rates higher than 15% climbed to 15 from 13 metro areas in September.

Economists surveyed by Briefing.com expect the national unemployment rate will be unchanged at 10.2% when the Labor Department releases its November jobs report Dec. 4.

Overall, 138 cities in the Labor Department report had unemployment rates above the not seasonally adjusted national figure of 9.5%, while 229 reported jobless rates below it, and 5 areas had the same rate.

Nine areas in California posted jobless rates higher than 15%, including El Centro, and three were in Michigan, including Detroit.

The city ravaged by the auto industry's collapse continued to lead the nation's areas of 1 million people ore more with the highest unemployment rate in October at 16.7%

California's Inland Empire, including Riverside, San Bernardino and Ontario, ranked second to Detroit among larger areas with an unemployment rate of 14.6% in October.

As in El Centro, the agricultural workforce in Yuma, Ariz., is impacted by the extreme heat, and the city has the second-highest rate overall at 23.5%, a slight drop from 24.3% in September.

The metro areas with the lowest unemployment rates in September were all in North Dakota, with Bismarck at 2.8%, followed by Fargo and Grand Forks, each at 3.5%.

Large cities with the lowest jobless rates were the Washington, D.C., metro area at 6.2% and Oklahoma City and the Virginia Beach area at 6.5%. To top of page

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