WALLOWA COUNTY — It’s no secret that employers across the state are struggling to find workers. Business owners collectively furrow their brow at the trickle of job applications as more and more businesses open and the share of workers seems to be vanishing into thin air.

The tightening labor market makes operation difficult, and expanding nearly impossible.

“It’s pretty much across all industries,” said Stacy Beckman, general manager of Wallowa County Grain Growers in Enterprise. “Managers I’ve talked to are having difficulty trying to get help.”

He said the business he runs didn’t actually lose any workers to the pandemic, but expanding his workforce has been a challenge.

“Trying to add (workers) is tough,” he said. “It’s even tougher in a smaller community like we are.”

Cindy Ellis, who owns and operates Heavenly’s Restaurant in Enterprise, switched to takeout only when the pandemic first struck, but was able to resume indoor seating as businesses were allowed to reopen. But then reliable employees became scarce.

“We had to cut our indoor seating because someone we hired didn’t show,” she said.

Ellis on Thursday, Sept. 16, said Heavenly’s was open for indoor seating.

“We got a lot of folks from Elgin,” she said, and despite a small work force, “we were swamped.”

More boomers are retiring

Eastern Oregon saw only negligible gains in population over the the past decade, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. And looming within the numbers is a certainty that has taken the back seat to pandemic woes and commentary: The boomers are retiring.

In Eastern Oregon, the working population is aging out much more quickly than in previous years. The Oregon Employment Department reported in May 2021 that the working population in Eastern Oregon had grown significantly older from 2010 to 2020. That increased share means the number of workers age 55 and older makes up 26% of the overall workforce. That’s up nearly 4% from 2010.

As well, the population of older workers has been declining since 2017, when it reached its peak, according to U.S. Census Bureau data.

The rate at which the baby boomer generation has been retiring is accelerating, according to Pew Research Center. From 2019 to 2020, approximately 28.6 million baby boomers — those born between 1946 and 1964 — retired, a 3.2 million uptick from 2019. On average, that number had previously been increasing by around 2 million retirees per year.

The impact

“One of the other factors is that boomers are retiring at an enormous rate, which is, in a way, sucking everybody up the the corporate ladder or corporate world,” said Matt Scarfo, a Union County commissioner and owner of Long Branch and Benchwarmer’s Pub & Grill in La Grande. “Everyone’s getting the bump up to those higher positions, if they did have them, and so it’s causing a vacuum down to the X, Y, Z generation.”

On the ground, restaurants and service industries reported having to hire much younger staff than in normal years — though the restaurant industry has historically been staffed by younger workers and those looking for part-time work, and the data from the U.S. Census Bureau and Oregon Employment Department indicate there hasn’t been any significant changes in the employment level for those younger than 18.

Angelica Zurita, who with her husband, Jose Lopez, owns the La Laguna Family Mexican Restaurants in Enterprise and Joseph and the Rusty Spur Saloon in Joseph, said they employ about 15 people at the three establishments.

During the summer tourist season, they were fortunate to hire college students who were eager to work. But now, as the students return to campus, finding reliable help is a problem.

“They really don’t want a job,” Zurita said of some of the locals who have applied. “They show up drunk, call in sick, don’t show up at all or they show up late.”

Still, as the tourist season ends, she’s optimistic the restaurants and saloon will manage.

“It’s slowing down to where I think we’ve got it covered,” she said.

The trades, too, are having a tough time finding workers. Jared Hillock, manager and co-owner of Hillock Electric, said the biggest problem is a lack of qualified electricians.

“There are just not enough people in the trades right now,” he said. “I think it’s important we get kids in trades and not preach so much college.”

He said a starting electrician right out of high school — after a four-year apprenticeship — can make $32 an hour, with benefits.

“We’re trying to push more kids to think about trades,” he said. “You can make a good family wage right out of high school.”

He does have an opening for a counter person, which he’s not gotten many adequate applications for.

“We get a lot of random resumes dropped off, which I guess is people trying to satisfy job-search requirements,” Hillock said.

Renaissance Design, Fabrication & Powder Coating, which opened in May in Joseph, has well-paying positions available that remain unfilled, owner Rick LaFave said.

“I’m still trying to hire three or four more welders,” LaFave said. “People don’t want to work, I guess. … I’ve talked to several people who’ve put feelers out, but I’m not getting people who want to go to work.”

Though he doesn’t have concrete evidence, he has his opinion on the cause.

“My opinion is because the (unemployment) money hasn’t run out,” he said. “Hopefully, we’ll get people wanting to go back to work once that runs out.”

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