Even as Oregon continues to regain jobs lost up to 18 months ago, state officials are preparing for an end to the special federal benefits that have helped unemployed workers through the coronavirus pandemic.
The unemployment benefits will end Sept. 4 — technically on Labor Day, but Oregon and most states end their claims week on Saturdays — and the cutoff will affect many of the more than 100,000 Oregonians receiving them now, perhaps as many as 80,000.
Congress is unlikely to extend any of the special programs it created as far back as March 2020, although regular benefits from the state unemployment trust fund will continue. Employers, not employers, pay into that fund.
The Employment Department reported a statewide unemployment rate of 5.2% in July, down from 5.6% in June, and that Oregon has now regained 7 of every 10 jobs lost during the pandemic, up slightly from the previous month. Employers have added 75,000 jobs in the past seven months, more than in any previous full calendar year.
Oregon's pre-pandemic low was 3.5% in March 2020, and shot up to an adjusted 13.2% in April 2020 before it declined.
Officials said they have been concentrating on helping people get back to work, even as unemployment benefits end.
"We know that with temporary benefits expiring soon, we know more people will be reaching out to us," acting director David Gerstenfeld told reporters earlier in August. "We are well aware this pandemic has not ended. We continue helping people prepare for the end of temporary federal benefits and find work."
Among those federal programs are benefits for self-employed and gig workers under Pandemic Unemployment Assistance; all unemployed workers under Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation, at $300 per week; extended benefits for up to 53 weeks under Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation, and benefits for people on regular unemployment and earning at least $5,000 from other sources of income under Mixed Earner Unemployment Compensation.
Since March 2020, the agency has paid a total of $10.6 billion from state and federal funds to 610,000 people.
Jobs are up, so is pay
The leisure and hospitality sector — restaurants and bars, hotels and motels — has added as many jobs in the past seven months as it did in the five years (actually 61 months) prior to the pandemic downturn. In July it added 7,100 jobs.
But that sector pays workers more since the downturn, as is true for employers in other sectors.
Agency economist Gail Krumenauer says the starting wage for new jobs is up by 2% from 2020 to 2021 — and the average wage for leisure and hospitality jobs is up by $2 per hour from its $13-per-hour base. For some sectors, pay is up by $4 per hour.
"More people are getting back on the job or moving on to their next career opportunity," she said. "Household income remains strong. Consumer spending is at a high for both goods and services. Economic reopening and that strong consumer demand have been pushing job openings to record levels. Businesses need more workers to make the goods and provide the services that people want."
But of a record 98,000 job vacancies this past spring — records have been kept since 2013 — almost one in five (19,000) required less than one year of work experience.
Officials said employers have reported difficulty filling two broad categories of jobs.
One category is those jobs requiring more than a high school diploma but less than a bachelor's degree. Examples: Heavy truck drivers, registered nurses, nursing assistants, dental assistants, and electricians. Pre-pandemic, employers reported that 77% of those jobs were difficult to fill, compared with 57% of jobs overall.
Another category is those jobs requiring a license, certificate or associate's degree from a community college. In 2020, employers reported that 71% of those jobs were difficult to fill, compared with 51% of jobs overall.
Delta: Too early to tell
Gerstenfeld said it was too early to tell whether the spread of the Delta variant of the coronavirus will affect employment trends.
"if anything is happening substantially in the next couple of weeks, we will be able to pick that up in our employment survey, which we would report in September," Krumenauer said.
"It is too soon to tell what happens if there are health and safety measures that have large impacts on employment, such as those in the spring of 2020, and also if people have COVID fear and do not go out to spaces even if they are fully reopened, it affects business demand. "We are still expecting to see full-time in-person instruction returning in September, which is something that moves employment in the education sector."
Government employment was up by 12,800 in July, when it normally goes down. Officials said the increase is attributable to public schools, which laid off fewer workers than usual. However, schools had already shed bus drivers and cafeteria workers during the pandemic, when in-person instruction was limited. Schools are preparing for reopening this academic year.
Krumenauer also said it was too early to tell whether vaccine mandates would affect job trends. When Krumenauer made her observation, Gov. Kate Brown had ordered health care workers to get vaccinated or face weekly testing. Since then, Brown has ordered vaccination mandates for health care workers — with no testing option — as well as state employees and school employees.
"We know there are a record number of job vacancies out there," Krumenauer said. "So workers have choices as to where they go and job openings are widespread in all areas of the economy."
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