Impact from virus forces Malheur County employers to jettision jobs

The Denny’s at 76 East Goodfellow Street in Ontario is temporarily closed due to COVID-19. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

Malheur County employers eliminated 760 jobs from March to April as the economic impact of the coronavirus took hold.

About one-third of those were in the hospitality industry, which lost 230 jobs. Restaurants and bars were ordered in March to shut down except for takeout and delivery. Hotels also suffered as travel was discouraged by state and federal health authorities.

Some of those jobs may be returning as Malheur County on May 15 saw restaurants and bars open again to sit-down dining. However, they are expected to operate at about half capacity.

Other employment sectors that shed jobs in April included health services and education, which lost 180 jobs, or about one out of 10 jobs in that sector. Local government, primarily in school systems, dropped 210 jobs, again about one out of 10 jobs in that sector.

 Overall, according to the state Employment Department, the nonfarm work force went from 12,100 in March to 11,340 in April. A year ago, Malheur County had 11,960 employed.

As a result, the unemployment rate in Malheur County nearly doubled from March to April, hitting 8.3%. The figures show 554 county residents lost jobs in May.

The county is faring better than nearby counties, which are experiencing double-digit unemployment. That includes Union (19.3%), Grant (15.3%), Baker (13.5%) and Harney (10.1%). Lake County had a 9.7% unemployment rate.

Chris Rich, regional economist in La Grande with the state Employment Department, said the Malheur County unemployment rate doesn’t count Idaho residents who worked in the county and have lost their jobs. They would be listed as unemployed in Idaho’s count.

“A lot of those people might not show up in Oregon numbers,” Rich said.

Previous state research has shown that about half of those commuting to Malheur County for work come from Idaho.

The state showed 429 county residents sought unemployment benefits in April. Rich said the gap between those losing jobs and the smaller number seeking benefits could result from processing lags, certain employees not being eligible for benefits or people not seeking benefits.

Of those who did seek state unemployment, seven out of 10 had no more than a high school education.

Rich said that’s typical across the state because the hospitality industry was particularly hard hit.

“The majority of people in that industry that were impacted are probably a younger group of people and have less education,” Rich said. “A lot of those jobs are filled by people going to college or people working a second job.”

Rich said he hasn’t seen data to indicate whether employers are facing any challenges bringing back employees as businesses reopen.

He said he has heard accounts of employees electing to stay off the job because the combination of unemployment benefits and an added $600-a-week federal payment totals more than wages would.

That is a risky choice, Rich said, because unemployed workers can lose benefits if they are offered their former job but turn it down.


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