Jackson Co. ranks near the bottom in work pay

Workers in Jackson County receive weekly wages significantly below the national average, according to the statistics released Friday by the U.S. Department of Labor.

Among the nation's 334 counties with at least 75,000 workers, Jackson County ranks No. 324, with an average weekly wage of $665.

For a 40-hour week, that's an hourly wage of $16.63 — roughly twice the minimum wage.

Washington and Multnomah counties, with weekly wages of $986 and $934 respectively, exceeded the national average wage of $918 per week, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, while Clackamas ($821), Lane ($711) and Marion ($711) counties were below average. Overall, Oregon ranked No. 30 among the states, with an average weekly wage of $808.

Bill Thorndike, president of Medford Fabrication and a former member of the Portland branch board of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, said dwindling employment might up the average wage in future reports.

"For most businesses today, you've retained longer-term employees that are probably at a higher-wage rate," Thorndike said. "In a downturn where you are eliminating jobs, your cost per hour actually goes up."

The types of jobs found in Oregon contribute to the comparatively low wages in some instances, said Dave Kong of the Bureau of Labor Statistic's San Francisco office.

"The contributing factors between the U.S. and Oregon may have something to do with the employment mix," Kong said.

Agriculture and forestry remain relatively large employers in Oregon, and manufacturing employment in the state is 15 percent above the national average. Oregon employment in the higher-paying professional and technical-service jobs is only about 75 percent of the national rate. Locally, the number of people who work in health care and real estate are near the national average Kong said.

High-paying jobs in mining, quarrying, and oil-and-gas extraction are just 22 percent of the national level in Oregon.

"It reflects the value of the underlying commodity," Thorndike said. "With coal, oil, silver and gold you are talking about commodities in pretty good shape. Inversely, when you are looking at the value of wood products, it is a no-win situation because the value of the commodity has fallen so dramatically."

There are places with even lower average wages than Southern Oregon. Three rural agriculture-based south Texas counties, Hidalgo ($574), Cameron ($584) and Webb ($600) were among the lowest-ranked counties along with Horry, S.C., ($581) and Yakima, Wash. ($624). Tulare County in California's San Joaquin Valley, another area dependent on agriculture, reported average weekly wages of $651.

Average weekly wages were higher than average in 106 of the largest 334 counties. New York, held the top position with an average weekly wage of $1,856. Fairfield, Conn., was second with a wage of $1,596, followed by Washington, D.C. ($1,570), Suffolk, Mass. ($1,568), and Santa Clara, Calif. ($1,566).

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported all six of Oregon's largest counties lost jobs between December 2007 and December 2008. Lane County had the largest decline, down 5.8 percent, followed by Jackson and Clackamas counties, down 5.7 percent and 4.5 percent, respectively.

During that same period, Oregon's unemployment rate rose to 8.8 percent from 5.4 percent, while it jumped to 9.9 percent from 5.9 in Jackson County. The state's jobless rate was listed at 11.9 percent in July and 13.2 percent in Jackson County.

Nationally, employment fell 2.3 percent during 2008 with only 37 of the 334 large counties adding jobs.

Thorndike said the bottom line during his tenure with the Federal Reserve was how many people were working.

"We've seen a tremendous shrinkage in that number," he said. "I still fill out the Beige Book report survey and they continue to inquire among business owners what they see relative to wages and benefits. They are trying to get a feel for what is happening out there."

Jackson and Marion Counties tied for the second-highest rate of wage growth at 2.3 percent, exceeding the national increase of 2.2 percent from the fourth quarter of 2007 to the fourth quarter of 2008.

"A $16 an hour wage provides basic wages for a family," Thorndike said. "But are there enough of those jobs? If there was an advertisement in the Mail Tribune for jobs paying in that range, you would probably have to have police coordinate access to the facility for all the people showing up."

The report indicated 29 of 30 Oregon counties with employment below 75,000 had average weekly wages below the national average, including Curry ($573), Douglas ($660), Josephine ($611) and Klamath ($637). The one exception was Sherman County, with an average weekly wage of $1,001.

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 776-4463 or e-mail business@mailtribune.com.

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