California employers added a modest 6,600 new jobs in November, driving the monthly unemployment rate down to 11.3%, its lowest level since the depths of the recession in June 2009.
But economists warned that the Golden State still has a long way to go in making up for the 1.3 million jobs that disappeared over the last four years and that the road toward historic, single-digit unemployment levels could be a tough slog.
"This is an OK jobs report," said Kimberly Ritter, associate economist with the Kyser Center for Economic Research at the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp. "It's good to see the unemployment numbers coming down across the board. We're still seeing slow progress ... and at least we can say it's steady."
The decline from October's jobless rate of 11.7% marked the fourth consecutive month of California employment growth, the California Employment Development Department reported.
The EDD also noted that it revised upward to 37,600 the number of new jobs for October. In all, 211,400 jobs have been created this year, an annual growth rate of 1.7%, the EDD said.
California's unemployment rate, which far exceeded the national rate of 8.6% in November, has dropped by more than a percentage point from a high of 12.5% in December 2010.
Similar drops were registered in major regions: Los Angeles County is down to 11.9% from 13% a year ago; Riverside-San Bernardino counties to 12.5% from 14.5% a year ago; Orange County to 8.1% from 9.4% a year ago; and Ventura County to 9.5% from 10.9% a year ago.
While economists caution that some of the improvement in the November numbers could be caused by people giving up on job searches, they point to the last two weeks' decline in the number of people putting in first-time claims for unemployment insurance benefits as a positive sign that a sustained recovery is underway.
The U.S. Department of Labor reported earlier this week that monthly requests for unemployment claims fell to their lowest level since 2008.
That guarded optimism is shared by Donald Whatley of Torrance, a furniture manufacturing production manager laid off in the spring. Whatley, 54, said he feels that the job climate is getting better, even though he's yet to be rehired.
"Just getting in the door is my problem," he said. "But I've seen the number of calls [from potential employers] turn around lately and, hopefully, something will turn up."
But the recent, more upbeat economic indicators could turn down again early next year if a partisan, divided Congress doesn't renew federal unemployment insurance benefits, the Obama administration and advocates for the unemployed warn.
The Department of Labor predicts that 230,000 out-of-work Californians would lose their benefits of a maximum of $450 a week by the end of January and 600,000 by the close of March if Congress takes no action. Unemployment insurance payments are a major stimulus for California's recovering economy, experts say.
Bonnie Ornitz, an out-of-work computer systems administrator from Granada Hills, worried that she could be forced to sell her house and move to another state with a lower cost of living if her unemployment benefits are cut off.
"I'll be living entirely out of savings," Ornitz said, and "my medical [insurance] payments will be going sky high."
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Photo: Unemployed people check listings at a jobs center in El Centro. Credit: Mark Ralston / AFP/Getty Images.