By MIKE FERGUSON
Of the Baker City Herald
May was a good month to be looking for work in Baker County the best month in almost two years.
New estimates from the Oregon Employment Department show that 263 more people were employed in May 2004 than the same time a year ago, and 132 more than April 2004.
Those job gains helped push Baker County's unemployment rate down to 6.8 percent, the lowest it's been in two years.
Only Union County, where 5.3 percent of workers were jobless in May, had a lower unemployment rate than Baker County in the region.
Leading the growth within Baker County were three sectors: manufacturing, retail trade, and leisure and hospitality, according to the Employment Department.
Geiser Grand Hotel owner Dwight Sidway says both his hotel and banquet business is up substantially, with June setting a new banquet record.
He's hired a handful of employees, and has openings for 12 more, from sous chef working under the chef, to department head, to housekeepers to wait staff. Some jobs have been open for as long as seven months.
andquot;It's been a very good year,andquot; he said. andquot;Baker City's received excellent press in Salem and Bend.andquot;
With all the openings, the Geiser Grand is trying to train existing employees to fill some of the more skilled positions.
andquot;We've spent a lot on training people,andquot; Sidway said, andquot;but (the tighter labor market) has gotten to the point where we're reaching out to people in other communities to come and work here.andquot;
Jobs are being filled, based on the state's monthly survey upon which the estimates are based. The Employment Department reported that during May nonfarm employment was up 180 jobs over April 2004 and 130 jobs over the May 2003 tally.
The 133 people who aren't in the nonfarm category aren't all farmworkers, said Jason Yohannan, regional economist for the Employment Department.
The category also includes the self-employed. He said he's not sure how many of the 133 were farmworkers and how many were self-employed.
A piece of the statewide story
Baker County's job growth mirrors the recovery going on throughout Oregon and much of the rest of the country, Yohannan said.
The unemployment rate statewide, 6.5 percent, almost matched that of Baker County. Generally, the county's unemployment rate has been running between 1 and 3 percentage points higher than the state's.
The number of unemployed Baker County workers was down to 516, or 133 fewer than those who were seeking work in May 2003. The last time that number was so low was September 2002, when 515 people were out of work.
andquot;Month to month, Baker County and others ride the wave of summer tourism, and that's part ofandquot; the local economy's improved performance of late, Yohannan said. andquot;But it seems like the rest of the economy has recovered some, too.andquot;
Area manufacturing firms added 40 jobs in May over the April total, while retail trade and leisure and hospitality added 50 jobs each.
Other sectors, including natural resources and mining, construction, and information, lost 10 jobs each.
Employment numbers, especially in the manufacturing sector, might get even better by the time the July report is published in September. Dennis Elder, Marvin Wood Products personnel director, noted that his plant's employment stands at 247 full-time workers, an increase of 17 over the past two months.
The plant continues to operate three shifts per day, five days a week.
Some of those jobs have been filled by students home for the summer, the plant's busiest season, Elder said.
Carl Town, owner and general manager at the Sunridge Inn and Restaurant, said that employment there was hovering between 70 and 75 people. Town said that although his business is andquot;very seasonal,andquot; he expected to hire several more people in the coming days.
Retail: Steady, modest growth
Local retailers also report adding staff, although at more modest levels. King's Discount Store manager Patricia Berger hired a new worker this month andquot;because of the demands of business.andquot;
But new hiring will probably not occur again until near Thanksgiving, and then it will be seasonal and part-time, she said.
At Copy, Ship andamp; Mail in the Basche-Sage Place, Joyce O'Neal has more than doubled her staff in the past year from one full-time employee to two full-timers and a part-timer. The newest employee starts Aug. 1.
andquot;We just need more hours in the day,andquot; O'Neal said. andquot;It seems like what we have on the shelves keeps flying off them.andquot;
How the numbers add up
Yohannan, the economist, says that the monthly unemployment rate is an estimate based on a survey sent each month to 100 Baker County employers.
andquot;It has an error range, there's no doubt about it,andquot; he said.
But within six to nine months of publishing the estimates, the Employment Department revises them for the previous year when employers file their required quarterly tax statements, which lists each of their employees.
That system of transforming estimates into actual numbers makes the final figure a truer reflection of employment and unemployment levels, Yohannan said.
andquot;That's more or less an exact number,andquot; Yohannan said. andquot;It has helped us to improve on our survey sample rates.andquot;
What the future holds
Yohannan has already compiled a June unemployment estimate. Like May's, it's 6.8 percent. He expects that estimate to andquot;go down a little in July, August and perhaps September before making its inexorable climb back up to the traditionally tough winter months.
andquot;My guess is, the rate will go down even further,andquot; he said. andquot;Baker County is showing a lot more jobs than last year. But by the time we get back to October or so, we're back in the same pattern.andquot;
Graphed over several years, total non-farm employment in Baker County resembles a wave with crests in the summer and troughs in the winter. The past two winters have bottomed out around 4,900; the summer of 2003, however, topped out 300 jobs lower than 2002.
Total non-farm employment for May 2004, at 5,240, already exceeds the highest point reached in July and August 2003 of 5,170 employed.