Central Oregon’s Economy Fully Recovered from COVID-19 Job Losses

by Damon Runberg

April 5, 2022

It may be hard to believe, but it has now been roughly two years since the first impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic were felt on the local economy. Employment and unemployment estimates are now available through February 2022, which gives us the opportunity to look back at the rollercoaster ride of the pandemic recession over the past two years of dramatic job losses and remarkable rebound. Overall, the Central Oregon economy has now fully recovered from job losses at the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initial job losses were stark. More than 18% of jobs in local businesses evaporated in a two-month period in Deschutes County. The Bend-Redmond metropolitan statistical area posted some of the largest job losses as a share of total employment of the nation’s metro areas and significantly larger losses than Oregon statewide (-14.3%). However, the job losses in Central Oregon’s rural counties were less significant, with Jefferson County losing around 11.5% of total nonfarm employment and Crook County only down 10%.
The wide spectrum of impacts was largely due to industry composition. The hardest hit industries with layoffs related to the pandemic were leisure and hospitality (restaurants, hotels, and recreation), other services (personal care services), and health care. Deschutes County has a higher share of jobs in these hard-hit industries with 15.6% of total nonfarm employment in leisure and hospitality before the pandemic compared with 10.9% statewide and 12% in Crook County. Crook County also experienced more of a glancing blow from the pandemic due to continued expansion of the data centers in Prineville that led to strong gains in construction, professional and business services, and information. These gains quickly overcame the losses in the leisure and hospitality sector.

Those initial job losses are old news. The recovery (and expansion) is the story for today. Two years after the pandemic’s first impacts were felt, employment in local businesses has largely recovered across Central Oregon with the region back in expansion. The hard-hit Deschutes County went from losing over 18% of total nonfarm employment to seeing employment up 1.5% above the pre-pandemic levels (+1,340 jobs).

The turnaround in Crook County has been nearly as dramatic. Employment levels in February 2022 are 7.5% above the pre-COVID peak (+500 jobs). The recovery has been much slower in Jefferson County, where employment remains below pre-COVID levels by 2.3% (-160 jobs). The slower pace of recovery in Jefferson County is consistent with the statewide trend.   

Although total nonfarm employment in local businesses now exceeds pre-pandemic levels, it doesn’t mean that every business or every industry has completely rebounded. Employment remains below pre-pandemic levels in the public sector; other services; leisure and hospitality; and private education and health services. The most glaring hole is the public sector, where employment remains down 620 jobs from February 2020. This is largely due to declines in education; most local K-12 school districts and higher education institutions currently employ fewer workers than two years ago.
Gains in other industries have helped to overcome the deficit that remains in these hard-hit industries. Employment growth was most notable in construction, retail trade, financial activities, and manufacturing. With housing supply low and home prices high, the construction sector has seen significant growth (+1,180 jobs above pre-pandemic levels). The job gains in financial activities are also largely tied to construction, as these include jobs associated with the buying and selling of real estate. As noted earlier, construction also added jobs in Crook County with the continued development of the large data centers in Prineville.

It is important to pause for at least a moment to celebrate this remarkable recovery. It is easy to dwell on the present struggles associated with a tight labor market and inflation, but we should acknowledge the resilience and resourcefulness of local businesses, the willingness of workers to return to the workplace, and the lifeline of multiple rounds of federal support to both businesses and impacted workers. Two years after the onset of the pandemic, economic expansion has resumed in Central Oregon.


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