Federal Employment in Eastern Oregon

by Christopher Rich

May 2, 2019

Federal employment drew lots of interest recently with the partial federal government shutdown. Soon after the shutdown ended, I gave a presentation on the impact of federal employment in Eastern Oregon. The following article is a condensed version of my presentation with updated data. The full PowerPoint from the presentation is available on QualityInfo.org, in the Local Areas – Eastern Oregon section, by selecting Christopher Rich.

Not as Big as It Used to Be

Eastern Oregon’s federal workforce declined substantially over the last three decades. Annual average federal employment was 2,850 for the region in 1990. A 30-year slide amidst falling timber harvests and a military site decommission brought federal employment to 1,770 in 2018. The region’s Northeast corner felt the brunt of the 38 percent decrease, while Harney and Malheur counties went relatively unscathed.
The steepest declines were in Baker, Grant, and Wallowa counties in the early 1990s. Losses for the period correspond with the drop off in timber harvests on federally managed land. Around 1998 employment losses flattened out a bit, although federal employment continued to thin out in the three counties moving forward. Morrow and Union saw steep declines as well in the early 90s. Federal employment for the two counties, however, remained relatively stable since 1996. Umatilla County bucked the downward trend through 2010. Umatilla saw lighter losses in the early 90s and then the county added to the federal workforce from 1996 to 2010. Federal employment peaked during the decommissioning of the U.S. Army Acquisition Support Center (chemical depot) outside of Hermiston. As the decommissioning process ended and the depot was shuttered, federal employment in Umatilla fell more than 40 percent. The federal presence in Eastern Oregon has steadied since 2013.

High Concentration in Industry and Agency

Federal employment plays a comparatively small role in Eastern Oregon’s economic big picture. Overall, the region’s 6,486 public and private firms employed 73,000 people and paid out more than $2.9 billion in total wages in 2018. The federal government represented just 1.9 percent of those firms, supplied 2.4 percent of all employment, and contributed 4.0 percent of all wages. While comparatively small, the federal workforce still garnered $119 million in total wages. For a little perspective, that’s $21 million more than total wages in Grant County, $26 million more than total wages in Wallowa County, and $28 million more than total wages in Harney County.

Federal employment occurs almost entirely in four broad industries in Eastern Oregon. At the detailed industry level employment is pretty concentrated as well. There were 749 federal jobs in natural resources and mining in 2018, all of which were in forestry and logging. The postal service accounted for 307 of the 323 federal jobs in trade, transportation, and utilities. In addition, 331 of the 511 jobs in public administration were in administration of environmental programs and 87 were in administration of economic programs.
Agency level details reveal the focus of federal employment in Eastern Oregon. Twenty-four federal agencies maintain a presence in the region. However, just six agencies account for nearly 90 percent of federal employment. The Forest Service represented 43 percent of the federal workforce in 2018; the largest share in Grant County. The postal service represented 17 percent of the federal workforce; the largest share in Umatilla County. Postal employment corresponds with population and 60 post offices serve the region’s residents. The third largest employer is the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), which represented 15 percent of the federal workforce in 2018. Forty-five percent of the region’s BLM workers were in Malheur County with another 40 percent in Harney County.

High Concentration in Grant and Harney

With the exception of the postal service, the size of a county’s federal workforce doesn’t correspond to the size of a county’s population. Two of the region’s smaller counties each have a large share of the region’s federal workforce. At the seasonal peak in July, Grant County represented 17 percent and Harney County represented 14 percent of the region’s federal employment in 2018. Each of the two counties has a population of roughly 7,000. Umatilla County, on the other hand, with a population more than 10 times larger (roughly 80,000), represented 24 percent of the region’s federal employment: not quite double the size of Grant or Harney’s federal workforce. Union, Malheur, and Baker represented 14 percent, 13 percent, and 12 percent of federal employment, respectively, whereas Morrow and Wallowa each represented roughly 5 percent.

With a large share of the federal workforce relative to their small populations, federal employment in Grant and Harney account for a large share of each county’s total employment and wages. The federal workforce accounted for 10.8 percent of employment and 16.9 percent of total wages in Grant County, and 9.3 percent of total employment and 16.6 percent of wages in Harney County in 2018. In other Eastern Oregon counties, the federal workforce accounted for a much smaller share of total employment and wages. Not more than 4.0 percent of total employment came from the federal government in each of the remaining six counties, and not more than 4.0 percent of total wages came from the federal government in four of the counties. The exceptions were Baker at 6.3 percent of the county’s total wages and Union at 5.4 percent of total wages.

High Seasonal Swings

Federal employment in the region fluctuates a great deal with the change of the seasons. Hiring sprouts in the spring and withers in the fall. Due to the high concentration of Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management jobs, July is typically the hottest month for employment while January is typically the coolest. Grant County’s federal workforce was cut nearly in half from July 2018 to January 2019, falling from 360 to 190. Harney’s workforce was cut 43 percent, falling from 300 to 170. These are typical seasonal cuts for both counties. And except for Umatilla, Eastern Oregon counties typically see between one-third and one-half of federal employees cut from the payroll by January.  

For Oregon overall, federal employment grew by 2,100 jobs during summer 2018. Eastern Oregon’s federal employment grew by 720. The addition of federal jobs during the summer months accounted for 35 percent of the state’s added seasonal federal employment. Likewise, the drop in Eastern Oregon’s federal employment from July 2018 to January 2019 accounted for 32 percent of the state’s seasonal drop.
Larger Than It May Appear

The federal government in Eastern Oregon is a relatively small industry. The industry’s direct economic contribution is light in comparison with local government, or when compared with private-sector powerhouses such as manufacturing or education and health services. Federal employment has a large economic footprint, however, in comparison with sparsely populated counties. For Grant and Harney counties, the federal government is a powerhouse industry. For Eastern Oregon overall, the contribution of the federal workforce goes beyond direct economic impacts, as the majority of the federal workforce either delivers the mail, or helps manage and maintain the land.

 


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