March 28, 2001 11:00 pm

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

Things are going from bad to worse in the employment picture in Wallowa County.

Unemployment was at 19 percent for the month of February, the last month for which figures are available, the Oregon Employment Department reports.

The rate was 15.3 percent unemployed in January.

Things are better in Union County, where the February rate was 7.7 percent compared to 8.5 percent for January.

The January figures have been adjusted slightly from those reported previously for that month.

In both counties, the rates for the month of February are higher than for the same month the previous year. A year ago in Wallowa County, the rate was 11.9 for February. In Union County, the February 2000 unemployment rate was 7.3.

While there was double-digit unemployment in four months of 2000 in Wallowa County, the monthly average for that year was 8.5 percent.

Hardest hit are lumber and wood products jobs, which declined from 190 in February 2000 to 50 for the same month this year. That number is down from 70 of January this year.

The mill closures have been the main reasons for high unemployment figures, said Kathy Lepper, manager of the State Employment Department office in Enterprise.

The closures have affected everybody else. Its the trickle-down effect. Retail businesses, machine shops, even the (Wallowa County) Grain Growers, which has never laid anybody off, are all laying off people now, Lepper said.

With the mills down, its just that there has been a big drop in the circulation of money in the county, she said.

The closed Joseph Timber Products sawmill is planning to re-open in mid-April with a shift of about 40 people.

There is talk that the mill in Wallowa, which closed last October, putting 50 people out of work, could open again, but no official announcement has been made, Lepper said.

Statewide, the unemployment rate hovers just over the 5 percent mark. It was 5.9 in February and 5.4 in January, Employment Department figures indicate.

As a region, Eastern Oregon has had a difficult time over the last decade, Employment Department specialist Bradley Angle reported.

Population and employment levels are little changed since the early 1980s. Since 1990, both the population and number of non-farm jobs in Eastern Oregon have grown at less than half the rate of other areas of the state, according to Angle.

For example, between 1990 and 1998, total population in this region Union, Wallowa and Baker counties grew by 7.2 percent versus 14.8 percent for the whole state. Non-farm employment increased by 11.8 percent versus 24.8 percent for all of Oregon, Angle stated.

Union County has seen marginal gains in employment and population since 1990, according to state figures. Although the county has largely replaced the lost mill and logging jobs with jobs in other industries, the big sticking point has been the lack of population growth, the Employment Department maintains.

The population has increased by a mere 3.4 percent, well below the 15 percent swelling of Oregons population.

Such meager gains in population have curbed growth in other industries like retail trade and services.