The economic devastation caused by COVID-19 is almost repaired, but there are still some hurdles to clear.
That was the message Guy Tauer, a regional economist with the Oregon Employment Department, shared recently.
On Tuesday, the state released its latest unemployment figures, showing Coos County dropped from 6.6 percent unemployment in August to 6.29 percent in September. In Curry County, the move was similar as the unemployment rate dropped from 7 percent to 6.7 percent.
“We saw a little bit of a decline in the unemployment rate,” Tauer said. “We’re continuing to see a fairly tight labor market.”
Tauer said the unemployment rate in both counties is actually below the long-term average, but it remains above the pre-COVID levels in March 2020 when both counties reported unemployment of about 5 percent.
Tauer said while there are jobs available, more than 1,800 in Coos, Curry and Douglas counties can be seen on job boards, employers are struggling to find good workers.
“What we saw across the state was an increasing number of vacancies the employers are saying are difficult to fill,” Tauer said.
While some blame the tight labor market to increased unemployment payments, Tauer said the federal programs ended early this month. Whether the expanded payments kept people at home is not certain, he added.
“It’s really tough to say,” Tauer said. “In the states that ended benefits early, while there was an uptick of employment and earnings, the amount of people that lost benefits was greater. How will it play out in September? There’s so many moving parts going on.”
Tauer said hearing from employers is not the only evidence of a tight labor market. He has seen it himself.
“That’s a big challenge,” he said. “In the Medford area, we had a job fair. We had around 60 employers and around 50 people looking for jobs. It’s nothing like it used to be. We would have that many waiting in the lobby and a line out the door and down the block.”
A year ago, at the peak of the pandemic shutdowns, there were 2,045 jobs available. Today, in Coos, Curry and Douglas counties, that number is close to 7,000.
In addition to added unemployment benefits, Tauer said there were other factors keeping people from looking for work. The biggest is the uncertainty due to COVID. Tauer said some older workers have stayed away due to concerns over catching COVID, and younger workers have struggled with schools opening and closing and finding daycare.
“How much will it change in the next month?” he asked. “There’re too much in play. What will happen with schools? Will schools be able to stay open? It’s hard to figure out how this will play out over time.”
In Coos County, the job gains have been fairly strong, but Curry County has lagged a little. Tauer said that is largely due to differences in the neighboring counties.
“Curry County is quite a bit smaller and a little more dependent on leisure and hospitality,” he said. “Definitely a smaller economy so not as diverse.”
Tauer said the biggest struggles throughout the pandemic and now in finding workers is in leisure and hospitality, with businesses such as restaurants, hotels and others struggling. But, he added, the pandemic has not spared any sector.
The Office of Economic Analysis recently released a study that predicts over the next year the labor market will remain tight with more jobs available than workers. The study predicts growing wages as a result.
But ultimately, Tauer said, COVID will play a role in how that works out.
“So much is unknown,” he said. “Fortunately, case counts have edged down in the last couple of weeks.”
Even with the uncertainty, the local economies are showing signs of life, and the good news is expected to continue in the coming months.
“We’re still slowly improving,” Tauer said. “A lot of it will be dependent on how fast consumers are comfortable living the lives they did in 2019. That will depend on vaccinations and variants and, of course, government response to case numbers.”