BLS: Local weekly wages top 10 in Oregon

A fourth quarter report that includes unemployment compensation finds Crook County workers earn $817 per week on average

Much has been made of Crook County’s employment and income struggles in recent years.

However, a new report released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that when it comes to average wages earned, the community is not doing all that bad.

According to fourth quarter data from 2015, the average weekly wage earned by Crook County workers is $817. While they come well short of Washington County, where workers average a state-leading $1,285 per week, they rank 10th among Oregon’s 36 counties and far exceed neighboring Wheeler County, which came in last at $560 per week.

The data not only includes people currently earning money through standard employment, but also those covered by unemployment insurance from either the state or the federal government. The wages are compiled under the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages program.

Locally, the primary industry driving wages up is information, which in Prineville means data centers.

“They pay pretty well,” said Damon Runberg, Central Oregon’s regional economist for Oregon Employment Department. “Information accounts for just over 1.5 percent of all jobs in the county, but they account for over 7 percent of the total payroll.”

Runberg added that the information-related data center jobs pay, on average, $217,000 per year. Furthermore, the floor wage for such jobs, dictated by enterprise zone agreements signed by Facebook and Apple, is 150 percent of median area income.

But even the temporary construction jobs are helping boost local income levels.

“A lot has been going on at the data centers. We know that there is a lot of construction growth going on out there,” Runberg said.

However, the employment department can’t track exactly how many jobs the data center construction has added to the county, due to the fact that they only count the jobs from firms based in Prineville.

“A lot of these construction firms aren’t based in Crook County, so you look at that two ways,” Runberg said. “You could say it’s great to have the jobs there and obviously the individuals working on the data centers are spending at least a portion of their income in local businesses. They are going to restaurants, staying in motels and there is other retail and leisure spending. But for the most part, they are not residents, so they are going to turn around and the vast majority of their spending is going to be elsewhere.”

At the same time, the types of construction jobs generated at the data centers likely pay better than others standard residential or commercial construction.

“These are specialized contractors who are coming out here, so they are probably making pretty good money,” Runberg said.

In spite of the employment department likely undercounting local construction jobs, the county has seen a 50-job increase from the previous year, a number all the more encouraging when one considers the massive layoffs suffered at Woodgrain Millwork.

“Despite losing well over 100 jobs from wood products manufacturing over the last year, the county has added jobs back,” Runberg remarked.

And finally, another lower paying industry — leisure and hospitality — is seeing a big boost. Runberg attributes the change to a growth in local tourism, but points out that some of the increase likely stems transient construction workers as well.

“You don’t hear this very often, so it is kind of a unique circumstance,” he said.