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Oregon enters ‘job seekers’ market’ as economy grows out of pandemic

As the economy reopens in Oregon, reminders remain that the pandemic is still having an influence. Officials at the Oregon Employment Department note that about 84,000 people are working part-time and would prefer to work full-time, but they can’t for myriad reasons.

It’s not because the jobs aren’t out there. The Employment Department says four of every five jobs offer full-time hours. But much of that work occurs outside the home, meaning people with concerns about contracting COVID-19 or with unmet child care needs may be unavailable.

That dynamic is one reason that Employment Department officials say they’re seeing a “job seekers market” in much of the state right now, with employers competing for a limited pool of available workers.

“Workers can get multiple job offers, they can bid up wages within a sector and across sectors of the economy, and we start seeing signing bonuses and other incentives that employers start putting out there, in order to attract and retain talent,” OED economist Gail Krumenauer said Wednesday in a video call with reporters.

Among the sectors struggling the most with finding workers is the hospitality and leisure sector, and more specifically, food service, says Krumenauer.

Krumenauer says the agency analyzed data to find out what happened to people who were working in the hospitality sector in early 2020. It found thousands of Oregonians moved to a different kind of job.

“We saw that about 12,000 workers who were in accommodation and food services had gone on to jobs in either retail or transportation and warehousing,” Krumenauer said, adding that part of the lure involved higher advertised wages in the sectors people moved to.

And Krumenauer pointed out the hospitality sector added about 15,000 jobs over the last two months, as COVID-19 restrictions have been eased in some of the state’s most populated areas.

But OED questions one issue that employers often bring up when it comes to worker shortages. Employment officials said they don’t think that enhanced unemployment benefits were the biggest factor in keeping people from applying for jobs. But the department’s acting director David Gerstenfeld said they’re interested in hearing evidence of that.

“If someone is turning down a job because they will get more on unemployment, that’s something we want to know about, so we can look at it,” Gerstenfeld said. “We don’t think it’s the biggest issue by any means.”

Gerstenfeld pointed to other factors his agency has been hearing about. He’s hearing of people who are concerned about contracting COVID-19 themselves or exposing a family member, and may be reluctant to return to certain jobs where exposure may be likely. A lack of affordable child care - a problem in Oregon long before the pandemic - is also complicating returns to the workforce, Gerstenfeld said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting