Study: Workers stream into Malheur County from Idaho

Just over half of Malheur County’s workforce came from outside the county in 2017, according to a report released by the State of Oregon Employment Department. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Just over half of Malheur County’s workforce came from outside the county in 2017, according to a recent report from the state Employment Department. 

Roughly 67% of commuters traveled in from Idaho, according to the report. 

The economic impact of the numbers is hard to calculate, said economist Christopher Rich, who authored the report. 

The numbers don’t reveal anything about commuters’ spending patterns, Rich said. 

“Without knowing these details, we can’t really say what the impact is economically,” said Rich. 

The large number of Idahoans who make up the local workforce is not news to many Malheur County residents. 

Chris Christensen spent 20 years as a maintenance worker at Snake River Correctional Institution. SRCI is the largest employer in Malheur County, with just under 900 employees. 

Christensen noticed a lot of Idaho plates on vehicles in the parking lot.

About 71% of SRCI’s employees live in Idaho, according to a recent count. 

Although most employees don’t live in Malheur County, most of them live in the western Treasure Valley, said Amber Campbell, the prison’s public information officer. 

“Even though they don’t necessarily live here,” Campbell said, the prison is “still a boost to the western Treasure Valley.” 

Campbell said that the prison’s employees contributed to the local economy as consumers. 


Payette County alone supplied about 21% of Malheur County’s total workforce, according to the state’s report.

There is likely a lot of crossover impact, said Rich.

Commuters from Idaho may shop for groceries or other products in Ontario, said Rich, due to factors such as convenience, variety or price.

Folks who live and work in Malheur County aren’t necessarily spending all their money within the county either, he added. 

Of the 10,703 people living in Malheur County that are employed, roughly a third are leaving the county to go to their jobs. Of that group, about half travel into Idaho. 

“There’s a lot of ‘ifs’ as far as the full economic impact,” said Rich. 

Locals like Christensen remain skeptical.

“It’s certainly not beneficial to eastern Oregon to have people coming over and earning this money and then taking it back to another state,” said Christensen. 

There was a total of 14,680 people employed in Malheur County in 2017, according to state data, while 10,703 county residents were employed.

Rich said that gap of 4,000 or so can potentially be an economic benefit for Malheur County. 

The gap may be a draw for companies. Rich offered a hypothetical scenario where a company decides to set up shop in Malheur County given the workforce that is available in the region, not just the county.

“That company coming in is a benefit for Malheur,” said Rich. “They’re paying taxes even though a large portion of the workforce might be coming from outside the county.”

Since 2018, the city of Ontario has instituted a residency requirement for city employees. 

Ontario City Manager Adam Brown said it’s too early to quantify the policy’s economic impact, but he sees advantages. 

“They feel what it’s like to live in the community they serve and I think you see the community a little differently when you’re a part of it,” Brown said, adding that the policy has helped the city pull in more diverse employees.

Department heads must live within the city limits, while city employees are required to live within the school district limits, Brown explained. New employees who live outside the limits must move within six months of getting hired.

The policy is currently under fire from the Ontario Police Association, the union for police officers. Brown said the Ontario City Council has instructed him to enforce the policy.

The city’s policy came about after a faction of local residents came together, concerned after years of watching jobs and the middle class move across the river, said Brown.

“It’s a concern that I’ve always had for eastern Oregon,” said Christensen. “I’d like to see the money stay here instead of going back across the border, so we’d have more money for schools, property taxes, stuff like that. But it hasn’t turned out that way.”

Reporter Yadira Lopez: [email protected].

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