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Growing signs that Oregon employment has recovered from COVID-19

FILE: A sign seeking workers is displayed at a fast food restaurant in Portland, Ore., last December. The state says employment in Oregon has gotten back to similar numbers as before the pandemic.
Jenny Kane
FILE: A sign seeking workers is displayed at a fast food restaurant in Portland, Ore., last December. The state says employment in Oregon has gotten back to similar numbers as before the pandemic.

Oregon's unemployment rate has stopped falling and jobs have recovered to pre-pandemic numbers. And federally-funded temporary employees are leaving the employment department.

Oregon is seeing numerous indicators that the state has finally recovered from the economic body blows delivered by COVID-19, starting in March 2020.

The state unemployment rate nudged up to 3.7% in August, in lockstep with the national average, as both rates moved up 0.2% from the July rate of 3.5%. That appears to have ended a long, steady improvement in the unemployment rate from its historic high in spring 2020 to its sub-4% level now, very close to Oregon’s historic low.

The leveling off comes at the same time that employers added more than 9,000 jobs to payrolls, and the state has fully recovered the number of jobs lost during the pandemic.

“With the rapid gains in total nonfarm payroll jobs in July and August, Oregon reached a record employment total of 1,974,700 jobs in August, which was 2,500 jobs above the pre-pandemic peak reached in February 2020,” the Employment Department said in a statement released Wednesday.

But while the raw numbers have bounced back, the job picture varies across different sectors of the economy, said Gail Krumenauer, an economist with the department. Some have roared past where they were — like construction and manufacturing. Others are still below 2020 levels.

“The most notable is leisure and hospitality, which is still about 12,000 jobs below its February 2020 employment level,” Krumenauer said.

In another sign that Oregon has emerged from the pandemic, some of the extra help the Oregon Employment Department has been relying on since 2020 is drying up. State officials revealed Wednesday that 200 temporary staffers are leaving at the end of this month, after helping the department slog through a huge volume of jobless claims filed during the pandemic.

Acting director David Gerstenfeld said there is still work for those temp workers to do — but not the money to pay them.

“Unfortunately, our federal funding levels are not sufficient and have significantly declined,” Gerstenfeld said. “While there’s an ongoing body of work, we’re not able to extend these limited duration positions any further.”

Gerstenfeld said he’s hoping to avoid any disruptions or backsliding on processing unemployment claims or other services that Oregonians expect from the agency. He said the agency has gotten “very adept” at prioritizing the most important services to limit disruptions. But something will give.

“There will be an impact,” Gerstenfeld said, suggesting it would mostly be on projects that are less visible to the public.

“So we anticipate there might be some small impacts to customer service.”

However, Gerstenfeld said the agency should still meet its responsiveness targets of “answering 90% of calls within five minutes” and responding to online inquiries within a week.

Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Rob Manning is a news editor at Oregon Public Broadcasting, with oversight of reporters covering education, healthcare and business. Rob became an editor in 2019, following about 15 years covering schools and universities in Oregon and southwest Washington as OPB’s education reporter.