Oregon’s jobless rate dropped slightly in March, according to new data out Tuesday from the Oregon Employment Department, falling a tenth of a percentage point to 6.0%.

Oregon added 20,000 jobs last month. Most of the gains were in the leisure and hospitality sector as bars and restaurants steadily reopened after a broad wintertime shutdown that accompanied a spike in COVID-19 cases.

The state has now regained 54% of the jobs lost in the early days of the pandemic, 153,100 altogether. Oregon’s jobless rate is less than half its peak 11 months ago, 13.2%, but it’s still well above the historic lows around 3.5% in the months before the pandemic hit.

Oregon’s unemployment rate in March matched the national figure. But the state’s unemployment rate has barely budged since December.

And more than 9,000 Oregonians filed new jobless claims in each of the past two weeks, the fastest pace of new filings since January.

Permanent layoffs make up a rising share of all job cuts, indicating that Oregonians losing their jobs now don’t expect their employers will ever call them back to work. That could slow the pace of recovery in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, many workers have exhausted their eligibility under prior jobless programs after a year of unemployment. That doesn’t necessarily mean the end of benefits payments, but it does require that unemployed workers make a complicated shift to extend their aid.

That’s produced a flood of phone calls to the employment department, more than at any point since the early days of Oregon’s “stay home” order a year ago. The department’s phone lines remain jammed, as they have been for most of the past year, and the agency says it expects to take until the end of the year to unclog them.

So for now, the department recommends people with questions about their claims use its online “Contact Us” form to make inquiries about their benefits.

The form spares laid-off workers the anxiety and frustration of trying to get through the department’s exasperating phone system, but 80% of inquiries submitted online take more than a week to resolve.

— Mike Rogoway | [email protected] | twitter: @rogoway |