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The Observer Paper 12/22/14

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Eastern Oregon is a great place to live, but many people pay a price to live here. The economic climate in the region is still marginal at best and in most cases lags far behind both the state and national numbers.

Average pay per job in the latest numbers released by the Oregon Employment Department for Union County is $24,149, Wallowa County is $22,546 and Baker County is $23,273. These three counties are often referred to as the tri-county area.

TO GET SOME sort of comparison to what workers are making elsewhere, consider that the average pay per job for Oregon is $32,776 and for the same worker across the country is $35,396. That means the gap between workers in this area compared to those elsewhere is practically insurmountable.

This is in spite of Union County having some of the lowest unemployment numbers in the state for a long time. Only Benton County in the Willamette Valley has produced better unemployment numbers. Even though the numbers of unemployed remain relatively low in Union County, the wage level remains poor at best, while surrounding Eastern Oregon counties are doing even worse. Out of 36 counties in the state, the other five counties in the region are ranked 24th, 26th, 27th, 29th and 31st. Only Union County ranks better, at 16 out of the state's 36 counties.

THIS SHOULDN'T be taken by local leaders as something to brag about when traveling around the state. Union County's average pay per job means that most of the county's families are just living above the poverty level and certainly are not doing much at gaining on the rest of Oregon or the country.

Between 1990 and 2000, the Eastern Oregon counties' average wage increased by 4.3 percent, which kept pace with the statewide average and slightly ahead of the national average of 4.2 percent. But when you remember that people in Union County were already more than $8,000 behind their counterparts in the state, we are remaining stagnant. Those making $10 per hour in 1990 got an average hourly wage increase of 43 cents per year. That stinks.

AS WE MOVE into the next decade, Union County and the other counties in Eastern Oregon need higher-paying jobs — employment that will get our county and region moving at a double-digit pace when it comes to average pay per job. By the time we get to 2010, the jobs that were paying $10 per hour in 1990 need to be paying between $17 and $18 per hour just to catch up with the rest of the state.

This means that economic development organizations and local government must work at bringing in higher-paying jobs rather than looking to the minimum-wage to moderate- wage jobs. Otherwise this region will continue to lead the bottom part of the state's counties in income.


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