Business & economy

Latest unemployment figures show Malheur County economy is going strong

Angie Grove, co-owner of Mackey’s Public House in Ontario helps out in the kitchen of the restaurant last week. Grove said while she is operating with a full staff, the number of applications she sees seeking work have declined. (The Enterprise/PAT CALDWELL).

VALE – The number of people who are unemployed in Malheur County continues to trend downward, a signal the local economy is strong – but the low jobless rate is putting more pressure on employers to find ways to fill worker slots.

Since the 2009 recession, the unemployment rate across eastern Oregon has declined at a steady, but slow rate, according to statistics from the Oregon Employment Department.

Often the unemployment rate changed incrementally, but the economy since the recession has continued to show growth, said Chris Rich, an economist for the Oregon Employment Department.

“The economy has pretty much been chugging along,” said Rich.

Malheur County recorded a seasonally adjusted unemployment rate of 3.9% in October, down from 4.8% in October of 2020.

The latest statistics from the Oregon Employment Department show 12,682 people are employed in Malheur County. Between September and October, the county added 134 total jobs.

Rich said the county registered a 9.7% unemployment rate in 2010, just after the 2007-2009 great recession. The recession cost Oregon 147,000 jobs by February 2010 and triggered high unemployment rates which hit especially hard in rural like Malheur County.

Yet by 2013, the pendulum was already starting to swing. The county listed an unemployment rate for the year of 8.4 percent and by 2015 the rate dropped to 6.2 percent, said Rich.

Those rates were a far cry from the dismal marks early in the century when, between 2000 and 2005, the unemployment rate for the county hovered above 7.7%.

Even the pandemic didn’t hamper the local economy long-term. Rich said it hammered the local economy early – with an unemployment rate that jumped to 5.2% for 2020 – but it rebounded.

In April 2020, the unemployment rate peaked at 7.7% for the county.

A host of factors play a role in the slow but sure unemployment decline in Malheur County since the recession, said Rich.

He said some industries “took a hit after the recession and were able to ramp back up.”

Where people work also factors into the low jobless rate, he said. When the state reviews unemployment data, Rich said, it looks at the people who actually live in the county and whether they are employed.

“You have a large share of the workforce that commutes across the state line to Idaho. There is a good chunk who commute from Boise or Fruitland to Idaho. So that whole area has been growing and continuing to add jobs going back to the great recession,” he said.

The flipside to the encouraging jobless numbers is a shrinking pool of available workers. Employers still struggle to attract and retain employees, said Andrea Testi, director of the Treasure Valley Community College Small Business Development Center.

“It is worse than it was. Every single employer I talk to is struggling with employees, either getting them or retaining them past the first hour they get there,” she said.

Testi said many employers have increased their hourly wages “as much as they can without breaking their bottom line,” in a bid to fill empty slots.

“The question comes up repeatedly. The discussion continues in every single meeting, regardless if it is small business, economic development, faith based. They are all facing the same problem – you just can’t get enough workers,” she said.

In Ontario, for restaurant owner Angie Grove and general manager Tamara Carrell the employee availability situation is starkly different. Carrell, who manages Romio’s Pizza & Pasta, recently said she can’t find enough cooks while Grove said she has more staff than previously.

“We used to run 22 to 25. I am running 35 now,” said Grove.

Grove said she employs 20 full-time employees while the rest are part-time staff.

“It is really fortunate we have had so many people who worked for us in the past who have said, ‘hey are you guys short? I’d like to pick up some hours.’ When we are open, we are busy,” said Grove.

Grove said her restaurant “struggled a little bit through the summer as I built up staff.”

Still, Grove said, there isn’t a host of workers searching for employment.

“It is definitely not as ample, as far as applications on hand, as it used to be,” said Grove.

The scarcity in the local labor pool does not just impact the local merchant or restaurant owner. Lack of employees also plays a role in the current economic development boom in Ontario, said Adam Brown, Ontario city manager.

“To land big companies, a lot of time that is what it comes down to and that is where we’ve been hurt in the past but that is on parity with everyone else. We are in the same position as everyone else,” said Brown.

He said one solution the city adopted is to promote more housing.

The city’s housing incentive program helped lure people to town to buy homes, he said.

“The builders who started after our housing incentive program began to build without any buyers. Before they were finished construction, they were filled up. We know if they will build it they buy up. Fruitland is the same way,” said Brown.

The city’s housing incentive program pays $10,000 for building a single-family, owner-occupied home on city land or on property the city can annex.

Top jobs to show little change over the next 10 years

While the local area struggles to find employees, the top industry jobs in the region will – for the most part – remain stable for the next 10 years, according to data from the state Employment Department.

The top occupation in eastern Oregon now is farmers, ranchers and other agriculture managers.

That occupation is still projected to be the top job in 2030.

The second highest occupation now is farm workers and laborers, crop, nursery and greenhouse jobs.

Yet by 2030, jobs in the fast food industries and counter workers will replace farmworkers and laborers, crop, nursery and greenhouse jobs as the second-largest labor force.

Rich said the statistics on top occupations cover eastern Oregon “which includes Umatilla and Morrow counties. The Umatilla side can sway a lot of stuff in this projection because Umatilla is about half the jobs in eastern Oregon,” said Rich.

New tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Workers slowly return across Malheur County as pandemic benefit bump ends

Businesses in Malheur County grapple with sudden, acute labor shortage

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