Head Out on the Highway: Union County Commuter Data

by Christopher Rich

December 19, 2017

The U.S. Census Bureau releases data on commuting patterns through its On-The-Map tool. The data has a slight time lag, so the most recent data is from 2015. In general, commute data shows that it’s common for workers to live in one town and work in another. When people think of workers who commute, they may think of life in the big city. However, rural commuters are common as well. One-quarter of Union County’s workforce came from outside the county in 2015. Likewise, for workers who lived inside the county, slightly more than one-quarter (29%) commuted to jobs in a different county.  
It was most common for workers to commute from cities in neighboring counties, or from cities just beyond the borders of those counties. Roughly 230 workers came from Baker City in 2015 with another 220 coming from Pendleton. Both cities have quick access to Interstate 84, which provides a relatively short commute to the largest city in Union County: La Grande, population 13,245. Together, Baker and Pendleton supplied 5 percent of Union County’s total workforce. The story was similar for workers who lived in Union County, but commuted outside the county for work: roughly 290 workers traveled to Pendleton and another 230 traveled to Baker City. Workers were most likely to commute to cities in neighboring counties or cities just beyond the borders of those counties.

Workers were more likely to commute to the Westside of the state for work than to the Eastside. Portland and Salem saw a combined 255 workers come from Union County for work. In return, Union received only 55 workers from these two cities. It’s not clear from the data how many workers physically commute and how many telecommute. A difference in industries exists between the two sides of the state. The Westside holds the majority of employment in industries such as technology and financial services. These industries offer commuters to the Westside greater availability of jobs for a variety of skillsets, as well as the potential for higher wages to offset a long distance commute for those who do actually make the journey. Union County’s employment comes largely in healthcare, education, manufacturing, and retail trade. While certain jobs in these industries do offer high wages (mainly in healthcare), the draw for long distance commuters is substantially diminished.

Commute patterns for La Grande showed the city had a larger share of commuters than Union County overall. Roughly 45 percent of workers who lived in La Grande in 2015 worked outside of the city. The largest group of commuters worked in Island City. Cities in neighboring counties and the Westside of the state captured the next largest commuting groups. Non-residents accounted for a substantial portion of La Grande’s workforce in 2015. Roughly 54 percent of La Grande’s total workforce came from outside of the city. The largest groups came from cities within the county or cities in neighboring counties. Island City, Union City, Elgin, Cove, North Powder, Imbler, and Summerville supplied 750 workers or nearly 13 percent of La Grande’s total workforce. Residents of Union County apart from La Grande were much more likely to work in La Grande than the city in which they lived. This is likely due to the limited number of jobs in these cities, and the high concentration of these jobs in education, retail trade, or food service.

Union County’s commuter data reveals that more workers commute out of the county than into the county for work. The largest share of commuters earn more than $3,333 a month, and the largest share are from 30 to 54 years old. Commuters are driven to go the extra mile for earnings, at a time in their lives when they are more likely to have a family and raise children.

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