Union County Government Workers and the Public University Switcheroo

by Christopher Rich

March 29, 2017

Growth in government employment generally draws mixed reviews from the public. Federal, state, and local government serves an essential function in U.S. society, but growth in the public sector can either be seen as progress or infringement depending on one’s point of view. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, this county level analysis of government employment offers insight for any discussion.

Federal, state, and local government provided 2,579 jobs in Union County in December 2016 and represented 25 percent of total nonfarm employment in the county (based on a 12-month rolling average). Comparing 1990 with 2016, government employment in the county remained virtually unchanged, rising just 0.2 percentage point. However, Union’s public-sector underwent a gradual build up from 1996 to 2002. During this period, government employment increased roughly 12.0 percent to reach its peak and contribute 2,898 jobs to the county’s economy. A downward trend from late 2002 to late 2008 dropped employment in the sector back to just below the 1990 mark. Since 2009, total government employment has hovered between 2,550 and 2,650 jobs.
While total government employment experienced little change overall from 1990 to 2016, federal government employment dropped 26 percent over the last 26 years. Federal government employment grew slightly from 1990 to 1993 rising from 308 jobs to a peak of 319. Federal employment slid to 228 jobs by December 2016 due primarily to decreases in the U.S. Forest Service.

The bulk of federal government jobs in Union County in 2016 (roughly 58%) were found in the Forest Service – a division of the United States Department of Agriculture. Over half of all Forest Service jobs in the county are seasonal and the height of employment occurs from June through October. The United States Postal Service accounted for 17 percent of federal government jobs in the county. The La Grande Community Based Outpatient Clinic (part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs) edged out the Army National Guard for third with 6 percent of federal employment.

A Break in the Chain

Tracking the change in Union County’s state and local government employment from 1990 to 2016 poses a challenge. The passage of state legislation in 2011 and 2013 created a new legal entity called "universities with governing boards." Prior to July 2014, public universities in the state of Oregon were classified under state government ownership, but due to the new legal entity, Oregon’s public universities were reclassified under local government ownership in 2014 and 2015. Oregon State University, Portland State University, and the University of Oregon were reclassified in July 2014. Eastern Oregon University, Oregon Institute of Technology, Southern Oregon University, and Western Oregon University were reclassified in July 2015.

For Eastern Oregon, this change primarily affects employment at Eastern Oregon University (EOU). Previously reflected in Union County’s state government total, EOU’s staff and student employment is now reflected in the county’s local government total. This shift of roughly 700 jobs (12-month average) does not affect Union County’s level of total government employment. However, the shift created a series break (shown in the graph) in which Union County’s state employment dropped from 1,168 jobs in June 2015 to 471 jobs in July 2015. Correspondingly local government employment jumped from 1,116 jobs to 1,891 jobs.

The series break has a dramatic effect on the appearance of growth and decline for state and local government. If the series break is not accounted for, state government appears to drop 53 percent and local government appears to grow 58 percent from 1990 to 2016. A better understanding of growth and decline for the two sectors can be achieved by removing EOU employment from local government and placing it back in state government (as though the switch never occurred). Reversing the switch reveals a 13 percent growth in state government and a 6 percent dip in local government over the 26-year period. Thus, without the switch, state government would have increased from 1,108 jobs in 1990 to 1,257 jobs in 2016, and local government would have decreased from 1,157 jobs in 1990 to 1,092 jobs in 2016.

The State of State and Local Government

State government employment saw light and steady growth from 1990 to 2013 in Union County. Employment rose 18 percent for the period, moving from 1,108 jobs in 1990 to its peak of 1,309 jobs in 2013. The state’s share of total government employment also grew over the 23-year period. State government represented 43 percent of all government jobs in the county in 1990 and 50 percent in 2013. For Union County, the largest number of state jobs (roughly 58%) came from EOU prior to the public university switch. In 2016 however, home care workers accounted for the largest number of state jobs in the county (27%) – home care workers receive payments through the Department of Human Services, but they are not DHS employees. The Oregon Department of Transportation represented 20 percent of Union’s state jobs and the Department of Human Services was third at 11 percent. The university switch also dropped the state’s share of total government employment, which was 20 percent (519 jobs) in December 2016.

Local government employment saw steady growth as well in Union County, rising 21 percent from 1990 to its peak of 1,403 jobs in 2002. Employment for the sector slipped in 2005 and then in 2007 dipped below the 1990 mark where it stayed until the university switch in 2015. In December 2016, local government employment reached 1,833 jobs. The switch brought an increase in jobs for local government and an increase in local government’s share of total government employment. In 1990 and in 2015 (prior to the switch), local government’s share of total government jobs was roughly 45 percent. The share of jobs supplied by local government after the switch climbed to 71 percent in December 2016. For local government workers, 56 percent of jobs were found in education before the 2015 switch. The inclusion of EOU in local government, however, increased the percentage of education jobs to 73 percent in 2016. The remaining employment in local government came from county and city public administration, works, health, and safety.

The Sum of Parts

A slim majority of government employment in Union County was provided by local government (45%) in 1990 with state government a close second at 43 percent. Local government’s share increased to 71 percent when the public university switch occurred and the state’s share fell to 20 percent. Union County school districts and EOU supplied the lion’s share (roughly 52%) of all government jobs in the county in 2016. The U.S. Forest Service (the largest federal employer) and home care workers (the largest state employer) each provided roughly 5 percent of all government jobs in Union County.

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