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The data shows that Crook County is up by 140 jobs compared to pre-COVID levels, but employers are having difficulty filling those jobs

RAMONA MCCALLISTER - Help wanted signs are not difficult to find these days in Prineville as the demand for employees is far exceeding the supply of workers.

As Crook County begins to climb out of the economic downturn brought about by the COVID pandemic, there is light at the end of the tunnel as employers begin to get back to business as usual.

According to Regional Economist for the Oregon Employment Department Damon Runberg, nonfarm employment (jobs in local businesses) in Crook County is up by 140 jobs from the pre-COVID peak. Employment in local businesses is recovered from the COVID recession and now back in expansion.

Given this great news, there is still a pressing issue as employers begin filling those jobs. Every place one turns, there is a "help wanted" ad. Many local employers report that despite having several positions available, they are having difficulties getting and retaining employees.

Ericksons Thriftway of Prineville Manager John Amodeo commented that his store and many other employers are struggling to get employees. He added that he wonders if things will change very much until the extended employment benefits end.

"I just don't see any incentive for people to go to work right now," he said of the fact that many people are making at least as much on unemployment as they would to work at many service positions.

He also said that many people are picking and choosing from an abundance of jobs right now, as well.

Runberg pointed out that there are two sides of the issue relating to the help wanted signs currently around Central Oregon. On the demand side of this issue, he said the Employment Department uses a data source of online help wanted ads as a proxy for the demand for labor.

"That index is at all-time high for Central Oregon. We have never seen the volume of job ads that we are seeing now," commented Runberg.

He indicated that it began ramping up during the end of summer 2020 and lagged some in the fall when the second wave of the virus arrived. The numbers began skyrocketing coming into late winter/early spring.

"The demand is super-heated," he added of the volume and demand for filling positions.

He noted that a variety of reasons accounted for the high demand. There were many businesses cutting jobs and laying employees off early in the pandemic. Many of the ads are for hiring workers for previous positions and restaffing to normal levels. There is also anticipation that there will be an increase in spending this summer on services and discretionary spending.

"The actual discretionary spending we are going to see this summer is going to be very impressive. Incomes are up across the state and across the nation. People have a lot more money in their pockets—and coming out of this pandemic, there is going to be a lot of excitement to start spending money on services again," said Runberg. "There was a lot of emphasis on goods."

He said that because people could not spend money on services, many spent money on a "toy" or house improvements.

"We sort of could not spend money on services, so what we are seeing is most of the jobs ads are service-providing industries."

Despite Crook County showing recovery from the COVID recession and up 140 jobs, there remains approximately 400 more unemployed residents in Crook County than before the pandemic. It brings up the question of how can local business employment be recovered, yet there remain more unemployed residents than before?

On the supply side, the demand for workers is really high, and the supply seems low when looking at the experiences of businesses today in finding workers. Runberg indicated that many Crook County residents commute to a job in Deschutes County. Employment in Deschutes County remains down roughly 4% from the pre-COVID peak. Many of the local unemployed residents can be unemployed from a job they previously held in Deschutes County.

"Second, there are 10,165 employed residents in Crook County—that is up by roughly 500 jobs from before the pandemic, yet there are more unemployed at the same time. More employed and more unemployed. This means our labor force has grown by around 900 people since last February."

He went on to say that it looks like a lot of residents are new to the labor force and now identifying as unemployed. Whether that is to get more generous unemployment insurance (UI) benefits is a possibility—but still speculation.

"These could also be self-employed identifying as unemployed, which they likely would not have done before the creation of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance that extended UI benefits to self-employed and GIG economy workers," Runberg said.

He indicated that the average Oregonian on Unemployment Insurance today is making an average of 100% wage replacement—which includes the federal unemployment money. High-wage workers are still not going to get close to full wages on UI. The area where people who receive an excess of full wage replacement are the lower-wage workers. He noted that the disincentive falls into more of the service-oriented industry.

"That is a huge disincentive, obviously, for folks entering the labor market," he said of the relationship to filling positions in the service industry.

He noted that the data that they have for employment and unemployment numbers is through April 2021. It only runs through the point when the COVID vaccines became available for all people, and for many, the fear of COVID was still a legitimate concern for the labor market.

Moving forward from the beginning of June, he said there will be a period of transition, as we get through that window where people had a legitimate fear of the COVID virus without vaccinations for the general public.

"Those are all public-facing jobs, where these people are having the most difficult time filling vacancies," he explained. "You are not having a lot of businesses who offer work from home having a difficult time filling those jobs. It's important to affirm the fact that in the middle of a pandemic, working in a public-facing job—until that vaccine was available, holding back too much criticism of those workers or potential workers."

As those things are phasing out, the employment department recently announced they will be reimplementing the search requirements for those receiving UI benefits. They will be required to be actively looking for work, and the extended benefits will expire at the end of summer.

He also pointed out that it is still fraud to be offered a job and turn it down and still get unemployment insurance.

"It's the responsibility of businesses who see fraud to report it, as they are a partner in that. We are encouraging businesses if they see fraud to just report it."

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