By JON MILTIMORE — Employment fell in more than 90 percent of the nation's largest counties in the first quarter, according to government statistics, and wages fell in more than half.
From March 2009 to March 2010 employment declined in 296 of the 326 most populous counties, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics released Tuesday, accounting for 2.6 million lost jobs.
The losses represent a only a slice of the more than 8 million total jobs lost since the onset of the recession, but come at a time when local governments across the country are struggling to meet budget gaps.
Counties losing the most jobs were Los Angeles, Calif. (-133,900), Cook, Ill. (-69,100), Maricopa, Ariz. (-64,000), Orange, Calif. (-58,200), and Harris, Texas (-49,800).
As a percentage, Collier, Fla., lost 6 percent of its work force, highest in the nation, followed by Sedgwick, Kan. (-5.8).
Sedgwick, home to Wichita, the world's aviation epicenter, has suffered from tighter capital markets, officials say, which has limited investment from the major airlines.
"When they stop building planes, they do reductions," said Wichita Mayor Carl Brewer.
Some aircraft companies, such as Cessna, have reduced workforces by as much 50 percent, said Brewer, and at least 700 more layoffs are expected by early next year.
Brewer said the area is adapting, offering additional aviation industries and services, including a national training center for pilots.
"We're not giving up; we've seen this before. The aviation industry is coming back, but it's going to look very different that it did four or five years ago," Brewer said.
Following Sedgwick were Marion, Fla. (-5.2 ) Clark, Nev. (-5.1), and San Bernardino, Calif. (-5 percent).
Industries experiencing the sharpest declines were construction, which fell 12.4 percent, and manufacturing, which dropped 6.2 percent.
Education and health services were the only industries not to experience declines, according to BLS. Government jobs overall fell by 0.1 percent during the period.
In addition to the job losses, a majority of counties also saw workers’ wages decline.
Average weekly wages for workers fell in 179 counties, led by San Mateo, Calif., which saw wage declines of 58.2 percent in manufacturing and 17.7 percent overall.
Public officials in the county expressed surprise at the data and said they were seeking additional information that might help explain the drop.
“I’ve never seen a jump like that; I’m not sure what the basis for that is,” said Fred Sloan, Workforce Development Manager of San Mateo County.
Sloan said the county, which has seen its unemployment rate nearly double in the last 18 months, is more reliant on professional and business services than manufacturing, which could explain the spike.
“This could be a case of a big change in a very small base,” said Sloan, who added the county has the third lowest unemployment rate in the state despite the recent jump.
Following San Mateo in wage declines were Solano, Calif. (-12 percent), Pulaski, Ark. (-11.3 percent), Peoria, Ill., (-11 percent) and Stark, Ohio (-5.6 percent).
Several counties experiencing the sharpest job and wage declines are also running out of assets to fund the retirements of government workers within the next two decades, according to a recent academic study.
These include the Los Angeles, San Diego, San Bernardino, Orange, and San Mateo counties in California, as well as Cook, Ill.
The 326 U.S. counties with 75,000 or more employees account for 71 percent of total U.S. employment and 78 percent of total wages, according to BLS.