Oregon Insight: Pandemic decimated low-wage jobs, while high-wage work expanded

Here is The Oregonian’s weekly look at the numbers behind the state’s economy. View past installments here.

The pandemic recession was the steepest, deepest economic collapse in Oregon history.

But not for everyone.

More than one in 10 Oregon jobs paying below $35,000 a year disappeared in the early weeks of the pandemic, according to a new report by Josh Lehner, with the state’s Office of Economic Analysis. Oregon’s jobless rate soared to an all-time high of 13.2%.

During the same period, though, Oregon actually added jobs paying more than $64,000 a year.

The data underscores the notoriously inequitable nature of the pandemic recession. Frontline workers in restaurants, bars, hotels, gyms, boutiques and many other fields were thrown out of work when the state ordered them shut down to contain the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Nearly 20% of jobs in food preparation and “personal care” (which includes salons, barbershops and the like) had vanished by the time the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics collected these numbers last May.

Those who could do their jobs from home, though, were often insulated from those effects and went right on working. Business, finance and legal work expanded by nearly 5% — scientific jobs were up more than 10%.

As Lehner notes in his analysis, that’s very different from the recession that followed the dot-com bust at the turn of the century, or the Great Recession. Middle-wage jobs suffered the most in those two downturns, especially in 2007.

While those who lost their jobs last year were frequently the ones who could least afford to go without an income, federal relief payments blunted the impact for many. The federal government continues to pay a $300 weekly unemployment bonus and has extended jobless payments for a year or more, far beyond the usual limit.

Oregon has paid more than $8.6 billion in jobless benefits, most of it federal money, during the pandemic.

And there’s cause for optimism that the nature of the 2020 job losses may accelerate the recovery in 2021. With vaccinations reaching a growing share of the population, and establishments of all kinds reopening, the jobs that vanished early in the pandemic may be among the fastest to return.

“Our office does expect a much faster and more complete economic recovery than we have experienced in recent decades,” Lehner wrote. “This means there is likely to be relatively little economic scarring and permanent damage.”

— Mike Rogoway | [email protected] | twitter: @rogoway |