Recovery surges: Central Oregon posts strongest job gains since last summer

Regional economist lists reasons many businesses are struggling to find new workers.

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) — The recovery surged in March, behind significant job gains across all three Central Oregon counties, the state Employment Department reported Tuesday. The region posted the strongest monthly job gains since last summer.

“The employment recovery in March was extraordinary, with monthly job gains the highest since early last summer, when the region began to move out of the initial lockdown phase,” Regional Economist Damon Runberg said in his monthly report.

“Businesses are hiring and workers are flooding back into the labor market,” Runberg said. “At the current pace of job growth, the region would completely recover all jobs lost in the COVID-19 recession by June,” he added.

Runberg added, “We are now one year out from the first pandemic impacts captured in the employment and labor force data. It is important to note that looking at over-the-year change is no longer a reflection of pre-COVID trends.”

Here’s his detailed report: 

Crook County: The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped significantly in March, to 7.3%, down from 7.9% in February. The unemployment rate remains higher than in March 2020, when it was 4.8%.

Employment levels rose significantly in March, up 120 jobs (+1.9%) on a seasonally adjusted basis. The monthly gains in March were the second highest in our current recovery, only trailing the June 2020 gain of 170 jobs, after the initial lockdowns eased.

Monthly job gains were spread across a variety of industries, with the largest in leisure and hospitality (+60 jobs) and construction (+50 jobs). There were also notable gains in education, health services, and professional and business services.

Seasonally adjusted total nonfarm employment in March was down by only 90 jobs (-1.3%) from before the first COVID-19 impacts in February 2020.

Deschutes County (Bend-Redmond MSA): The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped to 6.6% in March, down from 6.8% in February. The rate remains up from March 2020, when it was 3.3%.

Hiring surged in March across Deschutes County, with 1,880 jobs (+2.2%) jobs added on a seasonally adjusted basis from February. The gains in March were the largest since last July, when the county added 2,760 jobs in a single month.

Those monthly gains were largely concentrated in leisure and hospitality (+1,120 jobs) as many restaurants reopened for indoor dining. However, there were also strong gains in retail trade, local government education, private education and health services, and manufacturing.

Compared with the Pre-COVID peak in February 2020, seasonally adjusted total nonfarm employment in Deschutes County remained down just 3.4% (-3,030 jobs). Just three months ago, the county was down by 6.7%, — “an amazing pace of recovery over the past two months,” Runberg noted.

Jefferson County: The seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped slightly to 6.8% in March, down from 6.9% in February. The rate was 4.2% in March 2020.

Jefferson County posted a gain of 40 jobs (~1%) on a seasonally adjusted basis in March, a slightly slower pace of growth than neighboring counties. Those monthly gains were almost entirely in local government and leisure and hospitality.

Despite a slower pace of recovery in March, Jefferson County is the nearest of the Central Oregon counties to a complete recovery from the COVID-19 shock. Seasonally adjusted employment levels were only down 0.8% (-60 jobs) from the pre-COVID peak in February 2020.

Asked by NewsChannel 21 about the recent challenges businesses are facing in hiring new workers, Runberg said, “Businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to find workers to fill their job vacancies. There are a few reasons for this.

“First, as you can see from this March report, employment levels were only down 3.4% from the pre-COVID peak, when we were at full employment. We are now toward the end of April. I imagine where we are standing today that levels of employment are only around 2% lower than the previous peak.

“Second, nearly half of those who are unemployed remain on temporary layoff. These workers were placed on temporary layoff by their employer and do not need to look for work, as long as the employer plans to bring them back. If they don’t plan to bring them back, they need to be honest with these workers, so that they can begin looking for a new job.

“Third, there is only excess unemployed in a handful of occupational groups. If you aren’t trying to hire from one of these hard-hit occupations, then you’ll find the supply of labor is as tight as it was before COVID.

“Fourth, many likely do not feel comfortable working a public-facing job until they have access to the vaccine. Look at Deschutes (Brewery’s downtown Bend) pub, they are temporarily closed (for a week) due to a COVID-positive within their staff. The good news is that vaccine eligibility has now expanded to all adults 16+.

“Finally, expanded unemployment insurance is likely creating a disincentive for some to go back to work, but this group will likely shrink as opportunity expands and work search verification starts back up,” Runberg said.

Next Press Releases

The Oregon Employment Department plans to release the April county and metropolitan area unemployment rates on Tuesday, May 25 and the statewide unemployment rate and employment survey data for April on Tuesday, May 18.

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