LA GRANDE — Eastern Oregon is back on track to recovering jobs lost due to the COVID-19 pandemic, according to state economists.

Regional economists Christopher Rich and Dallas Fridley at the Oregon Employment Department reported unemployment rates have dipped to the lowest level since the pandemic began in the spring of 2020.

Union and Wallowa counties saw a 1.5% and 1.6% decrease in unemployment from September 2020 to September 2021, respectively, closing out with 5.3% and 5.4% total unemployment rates. Baker County saw a 2.2% drop during the same period, from 7.1% to 4.9%, the largest drop of the Northeastern Oregon counties. Grant County saw a 1.5% decrease, down to 6.6%.

Morrow County recorded one of the lowest year-end decreases with just 0.9%, down to a 4.4% unemployment rate since September 2021. Morrow County’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate ranked sixth out of 36 Oregon counties, tied with Clackamas and Yamhill counties.

Umatilla County with an unemployment rate of 5% placed 14th in September among Oregon’s 36 counties, tied with Jackson County. During the year, Umatilla County’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell by 1.2 percentage points since September 2020. Umatilla County led job growth primarily through public sector employment, adding 470 government jobs during the year.

Union County is largely back on track, according to economists, but not fully recovered from the 1,400 jobs lost at the start of the pandemic. Leisure and hospitality regained 87% of jobs lost, but remained roughly 60 shy of full recovery.

Evidence of those statistics can be found in persistent help wanted signs at fast food chains such as McDonald’s and Dairy Queen, while job advertisements have largely disappeared from the windows of local restaurants downtown. Restaurants such as Mamacita’s International Grill, La Grande, have had to close down temporarily or reduce hours due to staffing shortages, while others such as local bistro and eatery Wine Down have closed permanently.

The total increase across Northeastern Oregon counties was approximately 1,450 jobs over the year ending in September. Of those jobs added, 700 were in the private sector.

Across the state, unemployment rates fell to 4.7%, down from its high of 13.2% in April 2020 when government-mandated shutdowns halted economies across the United States. The unemployment rate sits slightly higher than its pre-pandemic level of 3.5%, flirting with the idea of a full recovery as COVID-19 infections fall across the state, and vaccination rates rise to 80%, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Unemployment claims in Eastern Oregon fell dramatically over the year, tumbling from 1,918 unemployment claims in September 2020 to just 794 in September 2021, a nearly 60% drop in claims numbers. Those numbers had been continually dropping since January 2021.

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