Lake County's unemployment rate jumped to 16 percent in January, its highest monthly rate in at least 19 years.

"It's higher than the highest rate for the '90s downturn," said Dennis Mullins, the Employment Development Department's North Coast labor market consultant and research analyst.

EDD monthly unemployment statistics prior to 1990 were not available Thursday. The January 2009 rate exceeds the previous high of 15.8 percent, set in February 1993.

As grim as 16 percent may sound, 10 other counties in California had higher unemployment rates. Colusa County had the highest rate, at 26.7 percent, Mullins said.

Dewight Mondawell, 54, a Lake County general contractor, said he is not surprised by the report.

"The bottom dropped out (of construction). It's the lowest I've seen since the 1980s," he said.

Mondawell said his business has come to a standstill since the housing market crashed. He estimated that 90 percent of people employed in construction in Lake County have lost their jobs.

The housing bust also claimed the job of Lake County resident Nettie Wolfe, who had been working as a mortgage underwriter in Santa Rosa.

With 25 years in the mortgage business, Wolfe said she's seen her share of ups and downs and this isn't the first time she's lost a job.

"But in all my years, it's the worst I've seen in our industry," she said. "It's scary."

She and Mondawell have been exploring alternative job options at Lake County's One-Stop employment center in Lakeport. However, there are not a lot to choose from. Meanwhile, they're making do, him with savings, her working part time for her husband.

They're hoping the economy starts recovering before they're forced into new careers. "Hopefully it does pick up," Mondawell said.

Most other job categories were in decline in Lake County include farming, natural resources, trade, transportation and leisure and hospitality, Mullins said.

Lake County's unemployment rate traditionally has been higher than those in neighboring Sonoma and Mendocino counties.

Sonoma County's rate in January was 8.6 percent, while Mendocino County's was 10.8 percent, slightly higher than the overall state unemployment rate of 10.6 percent, Mullins said. None of the figures are adjusted for seasonal factors.

Lake County's rates are higher than most because it has relatively little employment diversity. "Lake is agricultural and tourism industry based. So in the winter months when it's cold and raining, both decline," Mullins said.

Mendocino County was similarly bound by dependence on logging and fishing in the early '90s and its unemployment rate at that time was nearly as high as Lake County's, he said. Mendocino County's unemployment rate in January 1993 was 15.1 percent.

The counties with the highest unemployment rates, such as Colusa and Imperial, are the most heavily dependent on agriculture, he said.

While times have been tough, Mullins said there are some positive signs. Two categories of jobs in Lake County increased slightly in January. They were government, which includes Indian tribes, and services, such as auto repair shops, barber shops and beauty salons, death care, and caretaking, he said.

He expects home buying will increase as housing prices become affordable to more people and that construction generally will pick up with help from the federal stimulus package.

"So there's potential for growth," Mullins said.