February 04, 2003 11:00 pm
Predominant Industry:Tod Hull works as a stacker operator at the Boise Cascade La Grande sawmill.Boise Cascade  employs 756people at sawmills, plywood andparticle board plants in La Grande, Island City and Elgin. It paid its employees a total of $39,965,538 in 2002. ().
Predominant Industry:Tod Hull works as a stacker operator at the Boise Cascade La Grande sawmill.Boise Cascade employs 756people at sawmills, plywood andparticle board plants in La Grande, Island City and Elgin. It paid its employees a total of $39,965,538 in 2002. ().

By Ray Linker

Observer Staff Writer

"The salary is pretty good; this is one of the best-paying jobs in the valley," said Tod Hull as he took a break from his position as the No.1 stacker operator at the Boise Cascade La Grande sawmill.

Company and state Employment Department statistics back up Hull's statement about the pay.

Hull, 37, has worked for Boise for 13 years, the last year on the stacker. Before that, he ran the No. 1 press, which compresses lumber into even rectangular loads and binds it.

"I've done other jobs here, too, such as fill-in forklift driver. I like my job, it keeps me busy," Hull said.

Despite the ups and downs of the market, Hull has missed only about 45 days since he started, mostly early on when he didn't have much seniority.

He considers his salary good enough to maintain a good lifestyle in Union County. His wife, Debby, works two days a week for Dr. James Weber, giving her time to spend with their son, T.C.

The Hulls bought a home in 1988 in Union, where they had been living since 1971. He has put money from each paycheck over the past six years into the company's 401(k) plan. Boise matches that at 50 cents on the dollar, he said.

He has found time to serve on the Union City Council (since 2000), is an EMT-B and training instructor in the fire department, and serves on the safety committee at the sawmill.

With men and women such as Hull, the wood products industry remains at the core of the area's economy despite the steady downward sprial of timber harvests since 1992.

Workers in the county took home $238.8 million in salaries in 2001, the last year for which figures are available, according to the Oregon Employment Department. That was an average of $24,762 per job. The state average was $33,202.

The first big industry in the La Grande area was a sawmill that began in 1861, the same year the first permanent settlers arrived.

Now Boise employs 756 people at sawmills, particle board and plywood plants in La Grande, Island City and Elgin, and paid those employees a total of $39,965,538 in 2002, the company said. That is more than double the salary paid by any other single employer. The various state agencies in the county pay a total $30.8 million.

Despite the product market being "about as bad as I've seen it in the last 23 years," Boise's regional manager, Bruce Cartmel, said the local operations "are going very well, about what we expected."

There are the usual shutdowns around Christmastime and the Island City particleboard plant closed for five days in January due to poor market conditions. The La Grande sawmill was running one shift last week.

Still, the number of workers in the wood products businesses here exceeds the numbers in all other types of manufacturing combined, Employment Department figures show.

Workers well paid

And workers in the industry, from the woods to the finished product, are among the best paid in the county. The Employment Department said 82 workers in a classification it called "forestry and logging" earned an average of $35,577 in 2001.

The 640 employees the Employment Department listed as being in the "wood products manufacturing" category in the county earned an average of $34,359.

One aspect of people dealing with forestry has declined: that of federal employment.

Employment on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest — which includes the La Grande Ranger District, the Wallowa Ranger District and Hells Canyon Recreation Area operating out of the Wallowa Mountain office in Enterprise — has dropped 43 percent, from 678 to 392 from 1993 to 2001, according to the U.S. Forest Service.

In December, the full-time equivalent government employee numbers on the forest dropped to 183 for those two areas and that included some in Idaho and Washington areas of Hells Canyon. Yet the districts' budget still provides for $5.5 million in salaries to the region, including Hells Canyon, said Forest Service publicist John Denne. He was unable to break down the figures specifically for Union County.

Eastern a mainstay

Another mainstay of the Union County economy has been Eastern Oregon University, which employs 378 full time, including 110 in "benefited" teaching positions. The annual payroll, counting benefits, is $21.6 million, EOU officials said.

The university is constructing a $39 million addition to its science building that is expected to employ 50 more teachers in the long-run as well as bring in students and researchers involved in biochemistry and related fields.

The largest employer group in the county involves the 1,322 people working in 33 different units of local government, including 125 working for the county and 119 for the City of La Grande. The local government employees throughout the county account for a total of $32.1 million in payroll, with an annual average salary of $24,121. That average is skewed by the City of La Grande. Thirty of its employees earn between $35,000 and $82,000 a year.

Union County will pay $6,540,704, including benefits, to its employees during fiscal 2002-2003, said Marlene Perkins, administrative officer.

In Union County, there are 813 people working for state government, earning an average of $37,937 a year. That's a total payroll of $30.8 million. Students who work on the EOU campus and are on the EOU payroll, even if they work only two hours a week, are counted as state employees under the Employment Department rules used to compile data.

The Employment Department put the 2001 federal workers number for Union County at 242, earning an annual salary of $41,422.

La Grande is headquarters for the Oregon Department of Transportation's Region 5, with 187 workers in Union and Wallowa counties earning $6.8 million. ODOT has $100 million in projects under way or on the drawing boards for the two counties to be completed by 2007. About $74 million of that is for 16 projects in Union County. It will cost $47 million to replace eight bridges on Interstate 84 between La Grande and Hilgard between now and 2007.

The La Grande School District, the largest in the county, pumps $13.6 million into the economy in salaries and benefits. School districts in the county employ 565, including 323 teachers, 215 classified and 27 administrators.

The Union Pacific Railroad employs 177 Union County residents —174 from La Grande — with an annual salary of $10.5 million.

Among the lowest paid workers in the county in 2001 were the 813 people in food services and drinking places, who averaged $9,113 a year. And that's up from $8,821 in 2000. The minimum wage was $6.50 before it went up to $6.90 on Jan. 1 of this year.

In La Grande, manufacturers of medium-priced recreational vehicles have bucked a national trend by increasing production — and employment — at the local plants. That has helped hold the county unemployment rate to around 5 percent.