Wallowa County's employment picture is showing signs of improvement, according to the latest edition of "Labor Trends," a monthly report published by the Oregon Employment Department.

The Wallowa County rate was down to 7 percent in July, the most recent period covered in the report. That compares to a statewide average of 7.8 percent in July. The local rate was also down from 8.7 percent during the month of June.

An estimated 3,405 Wallowa County residents had jobs while 257 were unemployed. The number of people employed was up from 3,338, or 2 percent, from a year ago. The biggest gains were in leisure and hospitality businesses, which added 30 jobs. Those increases were offset by 30 job losses in local government.

Unemployment in neighboring counties was as follows: Baker County 7 percent, Grant County 8.2 percent, Harney County 8.2 percent, Malheur County 11.9 percent, and Union County 5.1 percent.

Another positive development for Wallowa County workers is a bump in average pay per job, which increased 12 percent $25,669 from $22,860 a year ago.

"We don't often see this, but growth in average pay," said Jason Yohannan, regional economist, who noted that salary increases were much greater in eastern Oregon than they were in other parts of the state.

Yohannan attributed the relative strength of eastern Oregon salaries to two factors. He noted that salaries in some parts of western Oregon were hurt by hard times in the high tech business. He pointed out that average pay was down nearly seven percent in Washington County.

Second, average pay may have increased in eastern Oregon because "in many downturns, it's often the least experienced workers who are let go." As a result, the average amount paid to the remaining workers is likely to be higher, especially if they are called on to work more hours."

Yohannan added that the huge percentage gain in Wallowa County salaries may have been "a quirk in the statistics" tied to a large payroll increase in the construction industry. "That has since run its course and doesn't look like it's going to be repeated in 2003," he said.

Average salaries in the other five counties covered in the report are as follows: Baker county $14,916, Grant County $25,808, Harney County $24,649, Malheur County $24,164, and Union County $26,033. These figures are still well off the state average of $33,685.

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