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Help wanted: Oregon job vacancies hit record high

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneJacob Zervas prepares a pizza at Kaleidoscope Pizzeria & Pub Thursday in Medford.
Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneCasey Garner tosses a pizza crust Thursday at Kaleidoscope Pizzeria & Pub in Medford.
Businesses say 71% of jobs are hard to fill

Oregon businesses reported a record high of 97,800 job vacancies and said 71% of jobs were hard to fill.

The previous record for job vacancies was 66,000 in the summer of 2017, according to a survey of businesses the Oregon Employment Department has been doing since 2013.

The agency released the data this month after surveying businesses in the spring.

The shortage of workers is hitting businesses across Jackson County, with some cutting services and hours of operation.

“It’s crushing. It’s not as difficult to hire people to work as servers or hosts or cashiers, but it’s really, really hard to find people to work in the kitchen. This is unprecedented,” said Jake Allmaras, co-owner and general manager of Kaleidoscope Pizzeria & Pub in Medford.

Sundays used to account for 20% of the restaurant’s revenue, but now the pizzeria is closed Sundays due to staffing shortages, he said.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, to-go orders made up 30% of the restaurant’s business. Now that has dwindled to 5%, he said.

Allmaras said Kaleidoscope doesn’t have enough kitchen workers to handle dine-in orders plus all the to-go orders customers would like to make. The restaurant can’t seat as many people in its dining area, either, because kitchen workers can’t keep up with a full restaurant.

He said when the pandemic hit in 2020, Kaleidoscope essentially did voluntary layoffs, asking workers if they wanted to go on unemployment or stay on the job.

“People went out and found a different kind of job. One of them is working as a real estate agent. One is working in an eye clinic where it’s regular, predictable hours,” Allmaras said.

He said only part of the local and national labor shortage is related to enhanced federal unemployment benefits that supplement state unemployment payments.

The federal bonus of $300 per week expires Sept. 6. The average unemployed Oregonian would need a full-time job paying $16.75 an hour to equal state and federal unemployment benefits, according to the Oregon Employment Department.

Allmaras said the challenge of hiring restaurant workers is a multifaceted problem that will continue after the federal bonus ends. Restaurants will have to figure out how to make themselves more worker-friendly.

“The restaurant business is looking at some pretty deep-seated changes that are going to have to be made to get people to work. Working in a busy kitchen in a restaurant in the summer time is hard work. We’re really busy. It’s not standing there and chatting with your co-workers. I think people are understanding that there are other things that they can do,“ Allmaras said.

He said offering more pay and benefits isn’t enough to solve the labor shortage for restaurants. With tip sharing, Kaleidoscope’s entry level workers who wash dishes and clear tables make more than $17 an hour.

Statewide, the leisure and hospitality sector ― which includes restaurants and hotels ― had 22,000 vacancies, according to the spring survey.

Other sectors with high vacancies include health care, social assistance and retail trade.

In the Medford and Ashland area, the food service and accommodations industries gained 120 jobs from May to June of this year.

But while other industries have gained jobs since June of last year, the food service and accommodations industries are still down by 60 jobs. They have yet to recover from pandemic losses.

Compared to last year, retail trade employment is up by 920 jobs, education and health services added 810 jobs and construction gained 630 jobs, Oregon Employment Department data show.

Restaurants were among the last businesses to have pandemic safety restrictions lifted in Oregon. They faced bans on dine-in service, then capacity limits once the state allowed them to resume indoor dining.

"As other industries were hiring, a lot of restaurants were still shut down. In-person dining was still restricted. People found jobs in other industries,“ said Guy Tauer, Oregon Employment Department regional economist for southwest Oregon. ”Then when that was allowed to reopen, some of their workforce may have found jobs in other industries. So that may have compounded those labor shortage issues.“

Before the pandemic hit, businesses were facing a labor shortage. Jackson County unemployment had plunged to 3.4% in December 2019, Tauer said.

It skyrocketed to 14.1% in April 2020, the worst month for unemployment during the pandemic. The unemployment rate dropped to 6% in Jackson County in June, according to data released this month by the Oregon Employment Department.

The state’s unemployment rate is at 5.6%, while the national rate is 5.9%, according to June data.

Jackson County remains about 2,000 jobs below the pre-pandemic peak, the Employment Department said.

"We've recovered about 85% of the jobs that we lost during the pandemic, so we're well on our way to getting back," Tauer said.

He said the area would probably see even more robust job gains if labor availability wasn’t such a problem.

Tauer said the impact of the weekly $300 federal unemployment benefit on worker availability isn’t clear. Some states cut off the federal payments early, but there isn’t sufficient data yet to show how that impacted their labor markets, he said.

Half of states ended the federal payments in June and July, according to the Associated Press.

Tauer said businesses could see some relief when in-person school resumes this fall.

"People still don't have access to child care. We'll see in September when schools reopen fully if that will help parents with younger children at home reenter the labor market," he said.

During the pandemic, the Oregon Employment Department suspended requirements that people on unemployment search for work. Starting Aug. 1, people must start reporting their work search activities every week to keep getting benefits.

About 40,000 Oregonians have been unemployed for a year or longer, up from an average of 8,000 residents during the three years before the recession, the Employment Department reported this month.

Meanwhile, more teens are helping to shoulder society’s work burden as the economy recovers from the pandemic, according to labor force statistics.

More than 40% of teens ages 16-19 worked in the 1990s, but only about one-quarter of teens had jobs from 2010-2014 during the slow recovery from the Great Recession.

In February 2020 before pandemic restrictions hit, one-third of teens had jobs, but that dropped to one-in-five in April 2020, the worst month of the pandemic for teen employment.

This spring and summer, one-third of teens are once again on the job.

Among teens in the labor force, their unemployment rate has dropped below 10%, the lowest in at least a decade.

"If you're a teenager looking for a job, it's generally a good time right now," Tauer said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.