Disparate Impact: Oregon COVID-19 Recession Job Losses and Recovery by County

by Gail Krumenauer

January 4, 2021

Every recession is unique, with varying impacts on workers in different areas of the economy. Recovery periods tend to be felt unevenly across the state as well. Nine months after the onset of the COVID-19 recession, disparate employment impacts can be seen across Oregon’s counties, related to the pandemic and other disruptions with economic effects.

Initial Job Losses

In March and April, Oregon’s total nonfarm payroll employment dropped by 285,200, or 14.5%. Oregon regained nearly half (46% or 131,700) of the net job loss by November. Both the initial spring losses and the rebound in employment look quite different across Oregon’s counties.
Given the nature of the spring 2020 public health and safety closures to curb the spread of COVID-19, it makes sense that leisure and hospitality had the largest initial COVID-19 job losses. Statewide, leisure and hospitality accounted for about one out of every 10 jobs in 2019. In the spring, the sector lost half its overall employment in a two-month period, and accounted for an outsized share (39%) of jobs lost statewide.

Likewise, counties with outsized shares of leisure and hospitality employment suffered the largest employment declines in March and April. The North and Central Coast were among the hardest hit in terms of spring job losses. One out of every four jobs was either temporarily idled or permanently lost in Lincoln and Clatsop counties. In 2019, leisure and hospitality also accounted for one out of every four jobs (26%) in each county. In Tillamook County, one out of every five nonfarm payroll jobs was cut in spring. Leisure and hospitality made up 16% of the county’s employment. Two other relatively leisure and hospitality-dependent counties, Hood River and Deschutes, were also among the hardest hit by spring business closures. Prior to the pandemic, leisure and hospitality made up about 20% of employment in Hood River County, and 16% of all jobs in Deschutes.

Resistant to COVID-19 Losses

All of the top 10 counties with the smallest shares of initial COVID-19 job losses were in rural areas of Oregon. These areas of the state are less densely populated – an advantage in a time of physical distancing. Gilliam County actually saw a slight employment increase (1%) in March and April, and Morrow County had the smallest employment decline of any county, with a loss of 4%. These two counties also had the smallest shares of leisure and hospitality employment among all Oregon’s counties, at 5% in Gilliam and 4% in Morrow.
Education Effects

While there’s a correlation between large shares of job losses and large shares of leisure and hospitality employment, there’s certainly more to the story. Another key factor is education; in addition to closing restaurants and bars to indoor dining, the spring COVID-19 closures also shuttered schools. While the relatively smaller private education industry has also seen significant job losses, the bulk of education employment, from K-12 schools to community colleges and universities, is found in local government. Statewide, education jobs account for roughly half of local government employment. Oregon’s local government employment dropped by 15,400 jobs (-6.7%) in spring and has lost another 11,100 jobs since then.

While Oregon regained 46% of its spring job losses by November, there were 10 areas across the state with a smaller bounce back. Of those, two of the top three – Morrow and Benton counties – had significantly larger shares of local government employment. In 2019, local government accounted for one out of every 10 jobs statewide. In Morrow, about twice the share of jobs (19%) were in local government. In Benton, local government totaled one-third of all jobs.
Multiple Sources of Disruption

Still, there’s even more to the story in addition to leisure and hospitality or local government and more broadly beyond COVID-19 impacts. For example, Multnomah and Clackamas counties are among the five counties with the lowest shares of recovered jobs. Yet they weren’t disproportionately impacted compared with Oregon in the spring, nor do they have outsized shares of local government employment.

While they were among the last to re-open during the phased approach to resuming economic activity earlier in 2020, Multnomah and Clackamas counties have also experienced additional, disproportionate economic and societal disruptions in 2020. The state’s most populous and largest-employment county, Multnomah, has the second-slowest jobs recovery rate among Oregon’s 36 counties with just 22% of the jobs lost in the spring added back by November.

In addition to COVID-19, Portland has arguably been the most affected part of the state by Black Lives Matter and other protests for an extended period during 2020. While some employers in the area would have already been closed due to the pandemic, others may have been unable to re-open as restrictions eased over the summer. Multnomah County is also home to Portland International Airport. The dramatic declines in air travel – which, according to Travel Oregon, has been down between 59% and 96% year-over-year since spring – disproportionately affects Multnomah relative to all other counties.

Clackamas County has also been relatively slow to recover, with about one-third (37%) of spring job losses returning by November. Clackamas was among the
areas most affected by the devastating wildfires that burned more than 1 million acres of land in Oregon during the late summer and early fall of 2020. On September 11, 2020, the peak day for total business establishments and jobs within wildfire evacuation zones, a total of 12 counties had some affected employment located within wildfire boundaries. Clackamas County had both the largest estimated employment in mandatory Level 3 evacuation status (10,000 jobs) and across all evacuation levels (166,000 jobs).

Lasting Effects

All across the state, Oregonians have felt the impacts of the COVID-19 recession, along with a combination of other disruptions that have affected local employers and workers in different ways. The most recent economic forecast from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis (OEA) projects the economy will return to early 2020 levels of employment by mid-2023. Highlighting the December 2020 forecast on the
OEA blog economist Josh Lehner wrote, “While the economic recovery continues, the virus is in control. Expectations were already that growth would slow noticeably over the colder, wetter months ahead. The latest surge in COVID cases all but ensures it.” Given the fall resurgence of the virus, and the longer-term effects of events like catastrophic wildfires, local economic recovery from the events of 2020 will stretch on for months and years to come.


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