VALE – The unemployment rate for Malheur County for October dipped to its lowest level in nearly a decade, according to a new report from the Oregon Employment Department.
Malheur County listed an unemployment rate of 4.8 percent for October, down from a 5.2 percent a year earlier. The private sector showed the strongest gains over the year, paced by 150 new manufacturing jobs. Public sector organizations added 70 jobs with the largest gains recorded in local government.
Overall, the county showed 12,356 people employed, compared to 11,692 a year ago. The most recent report showed 621 people unemployed.
The last time the county showed a jobless rate below 4.8 percent was in October 2007, when the unemployment rate was 3.8 percent.
One factor improving the local employment picture was the addition of a major manufacturer in Malheur County. Fry Foods began operating out of the old Select Onion site in Ontario last year. Another factor is the seasonal nature of many of the local industries – such as onion packing sheds and beet harvest jobs, said Chris Rich, Oregon Employment Department regional economist.
“Seasonal factors could look like you have an increase over the year in a certain month but it doesn’t mean that total employment has grown over the year,” he said. “We have to wait and see further down the line to see if the employment is going to stick as far as total employment.”
Still Rich said the economy across the region appears to be expanding and adding jobs.
“We have been getting to a place where we have a lower unemployment rate and we are taking on more employment, more across-the-board employment gains. I just think it is a better economy. I would say the situation is definitely looking a lot better than it was just after the recession,” he said.
Rich said the employment situation – despite some occasional setbacks – appears to be growing stronger locally.
“There was a good upward trend from 2010 to 2013 in private employment. Then it decreased and it is going back up since 2014. I would hesitate to say at this point it is an overall trend but I would say there are good signs of a trend,” he said.
Rep. Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario) said he was pleased to see the unemployment rate drop but said the jobless rate is just one piece of a larger economic picture for the area.
“I don’t think (the unemployment rate) tells the whole story. It doesn’t tell us how many jobs have been lost to Idaho,” he said.
Bentz said the state’s higher minimum wage and the recently defeated Measure 97 have conspired to hurt overall economic gains locally. Measure 97 was a mandate defeated by voters that would have tacked a tax on corporations in Oregon. Yet just the specter of the measure scared firms away from the area, he said.
“The good news is Measure 97 didn’t pass. That bad news was the timing was bad,” he said.
Bentz said one firm was interested in building in Nyssa – and was prepared to start its employees at $18 an hour – but backed off when Measure 97 was introduced.
Bentz opposed a higher Oregon minimum wage because of the fear it would drive local business to Idaho.
Last year Oregon created a new, tiered system for the minimum wage. For non-urban counties such as Malheur, the minimum wage on July 1 climbed from $9.25 an hour to $9.50 an hour. By 2022, the area’s minimum wage will top out at $12.50 an hour. The Idaho minimum wage is $7.25.
Bentz, though, said there is an opportunity for Malheur County even with the higher minimum wage.
“The trick is to point out to people in Idaho that they can make a lot more money in Ontario and let’s figure out how to get them here,” he said.
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