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Employment slow to recover in some areas, but Crook County exceeds pre-pandemic levels

CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Construction is one of the top industries aiding the local job recovery.

While many counties in Oregon are still waiting to return to pre-pandemic job levels, Crook County is one of few statewide where job numbers have not only recovered but exceed pre-COVID levels.

According to an economist for the Oregon Employment Department, Oregon as a whole has regained about two-thirds of the jobs lost since the onset of the pandemic in February 2020. The statewide unemployment rate shot up from a record-low 3.5% in March 2020 to an adjusted 13.2% in April. The September 2021 rate released on Oct. 19 was 4.7%, down from 5% in August.

But Gail Krumenauer said Oregon's 23 rural counties as a group have regained eight of 10 jobs — while Multnomah County, Oregon's most populous, has regained just four of 10 jobs.

"Multnomah County, which has the most jobs of any county in the state, continues to lag in this recovery," she told reporters on a conference call Wednesday, Oct. 27, the day after the agency released county and metro-area data.

In contrast, she said, Crook, Harney and Wallowa counties have surpassed their pre-pandemic job levels and are into an expansion.

"If we look at our payroll records that are available through June 2021 (not estimates, but hard employment data reported by local businesses) we see that Crook County had roughly 720 more jobs than the same period in 2019 before the pandemic," said Damon Runberg, the Employment Department's regional economist for Central Oregon. "That represents an increase of 11.5% from 2019 levels. Those are by far the largest gains in the region with Deschutes County essentially back to Pre-COVID levels (+0.3%) and Jefferson County employment still down 3.6%."

Lane, Marion and Polk counties (Eugene/Springfield and Salem) are near full recovery. Six others — Clatsop, Josephine, Linn, Tillamook, Union and Wheeler — are at 90%.

Unemployment rates for the individual counties can be deceiving. The same September report had unemployment rates at 5.1% for Multnomah County, 4.4% for Clackamas County and 4% for Washington County, compared with 6.5% for Crook County, 5.1% for Harney County and 5.4% for Wallowa County. Benton County (Corvallis) had the lowest overall at 3.6%.

Still, Oregon's recovery from the pandemic downturn so far has been quicker than from the 2007-09 recession, which took almost seven years for the state to regain the number of jobs lost.

Economists have projected a full recovery sometime in 2022.

Sectors lagging in recovery

Krumenauer said Oregon's leisure and hospitality sector — hotels, bars and restaurants — lost more than half its 181,712 jobs during the pandemic. One year later, the total was 89,800. The sector has regained about 63% of pre-pandemic jobs, but 35,000 remain open — and Multnomah County's total jobs in that sector was Oregon's largest.

A separate Employment Department report, posted Oct. 5, sheds some light on what happened (or not) to Oregon workers in the leisure and hospitality sector who lost their jobs.

The report said 37,000 have moved on, generally to higher-paying jobs in other sectors, and 19,000 were still drawing unemployment benefits. But there are no wage records for about 36,000 others.

"These are likely folks who either moved out of the state or they dropped out of the labor force," that report concluded. "There are many reasons someone may be out of the labor force, including retirement, school, health concerns, childcare constraints, discouragement or any number of additional reasons. This share of unaccounted for workers is pretty consistent with what we see in a more typical year."

Other sectors that Krumenauer said have resulted in Multnomah County job losses are construction, manufacturing and local government, including public schools — which didn't hire as many workers as is usual during the opening of a school yea and still seek bus drivers, food-service workers and others.

The number of construction cranes in Portland is down from 23 in January to 15 in October. Krumenauer said many construction projects have been completed, and new ones have not yet started.

Locally, most of the job growth appears to have come the continued presence and growth of the Facebook and Apple data centers. Runberg notes that jobs have increased in the construction, information and professional and business services industries.

"There has also been some notable gains in the health sector," added regarding Crook County. "The good news is that most major industries are back to those Pre-COVID levels or very close to rebounding. Even the hard-hit leisure and hospitality sector was only 3% below 2019 levels as of June."

Record job openings

Meanwhile, the Employment Department reported a record 107,000 job vacancies for the third quarter (July through September), up from a then-record 98,000 for the second quarter. The agency began keeping such records in 2013.

"Every region of Oregon has hit a record number of job openings at this time in 2021," Krumenauer said, although the largest total of 20,000 has occurred in Multnomah and Washington counties. The largest share is in three southwest Oregon counties — Coos, Curry and Douglas — with a rate of 90%.

She said employers have reported that four of every five of those jobs have been hard to fill — and the most common factor is few or no applicants.

The Employment Department has reopened most WorkSource Oregon offices, which it runs with partner agencies to match job seekers with jobs and has sponsored job fairs across the state aimed at specific job sectors.

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics has released numbers on job separations. Oregon's total rose from 47,000 in July to 58,000 in August. Though there is no information about the effects of wage levels or education requirements, Krumenauer said, "it does tell us the number of workers who are quitting their jobs."

Oregon's rate matched the national rate of 3% of the workforce. But Krumenauer said Oregon is among 15 states that reported a "significant" number of job separations.

Mandate effects uncertain

Krumenauer said it is too early to tell what effect vaccine mandates will have on workers who may quit rather than obtain immunizations against the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Gov. Kate Brown has ordered vaccinations for most state workers — other than those who work for the Legislature or the courts, two branches she does not control — and health care and school workers. Courts have rejected legal challenges to her order, but the two unions that represent much of the state government workforce — Local 503 of Service Employees International Union and Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — have negotiated more time for compliance.

Meanwhile, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is writing a requirement for companies with 100 or more workers to obtain vaccines or submit to weekly testing. The rule, not yet in effect, complements President Joe Biden's order for federal government employees and federal contractors to do the same.

Krumenauer said the mandates taken together are likely to affect 1.1 million workers, about 60% of Oregon's labor force. But the mandates are unlikely to take full effect before October's unemployment report, which will be released Nov. 16.

Even then, she said, employers are not required to specify why jobs are lost.

because of extensions, might not show up until after November reports. November unemployment report will reflect October numbers.

Employers do not report specifically that jobs were cut because of vaccine mandates.

"We do not get that level of specificity, even though we would all like to see that right now," she said.


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