By Carissa Wolf
Wescom Wire Service
Sam Gates counts the months. One. Two. Three. Four. Now he's almost on month number five of unemployment. At first he was specific in his job search. He wanted something that paid around $15 per hour, about what he made at his last job. He wanted something that that would put his muscles and experience as a residential mover and hauler to work. He wanted something that could elevate him beyond restaurant work.
Now Gates is a little less specific in his job search.
"Right, now, it doesn't matter. I'll take a dishwashing job," the Brookings resident said.
A recent study found that Gates has a lot of company. Most Oregon jobs do not pay workers enough to afford the cost of living, according to "Searching for Work that Pays: 2007 Northwest Job Gap Study." And the jobs that do pay workers a good wage are hard to come by.
The Job Gap report notes that the sluggish regional job market and low wages not only makes good jobs hard to come by, but often forces those who do work to take second jobs and make tough decisions. Some must decide to go without medicine in order to by food. Others must forgo paying utilities bills or go without nutritious food. And the Curry County job market and local wages are even worse, according to labor statistics.
"Overall, there are not enough living wage jobs for Oregon. But in a county like Curry County, with a high unemployment rate, it's going to be even more of a struggle," said Gerald Smith, policy analyst with the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations.
"Basically, decisions have to be made. You (can) end up with no health care," Smith said. "And if you end up in an accident, you (could) end up bankrupt."
According to the Job Gap study, Gates faces stiff competition for that elusive $15 per hour job. The report, published by the Northwest Federation of Comm-unity Organizations, found that for every job opening in Oregon that pays a living wage, there are as many as 20 job seekers.
The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations is a regional non-profit coalition that advocates for low to moderate income people.
Curry County job seekers and workers not only have a tight job market to contend with but a high cost of living.
Oregon has the highest cost of living in the Northwest, pushing the living wage up to $11.38 for a single person, according to the NWFCO Job Gap report. A living wage for a single adult is $10.41 in Idaho, $9.83 in Montana and $11.16 in Washington.
A living wage allows families to meet basic needs without public assistance. The Northwest Federation of Community Organizations considers food, shelter, utilities, transportation, health care and child care part of one's basic needs. A living wage also provides some ability to save, deal with emergencies and plan ahead. The NWFCO report found that less than 16 percent of job openings in Oregon pay more than $23.40 per hour a living wage for a single parent with one child.
And in Curry County, the job market is even more dire. The county had a 7 percent unemployment rate in Dec. 2006 the fourth highest unemployment rate among Oregon counties, according to the Oregon Employment Department.
The job hunt
At 17 years old, Chelsea Stalls already has some advice for the local job seeker:
"Look in a different town. This is not the place to find a job," she said. "I've lived here for two years and I still can't find a job"
Stalls works part-time but also wants a second job, possibly as an assistant in an office, to work around her school schedule. But she doesn't think more education or training could get her a better job in the Brookings area.
"It's bad all around," she said.
Curry County job counselor and employment agents say they need to think creatively in order to connect job seekers with work.
"We're constantly looking for ways to bring jobs in because we know there's a need," said Elaine Lortscher, director of South Coast Independent Living Services (SCILS), an advocacy group that helps people with disabilities find jobs.
Lortscher said that she even looks at ways she can create small, part-time jobs within the SCILS office in order to give some of their clients work experience. Anything that can add to a job seeker's skills and experience is vital in a tight job market, Lortscher said,
"Here, it's really competitive because there's a lot of people who come here to retire and have awesome skills and they want a part-time job." Lortscher said.
But economists say that before you blame the senior set for nabbing the good jobs, you need to look at how they do contribute to the region's economy. They tend to demand a lot of services, especially in the retail and health care sectors, so they create a lot of jobs. But as a whole, they tend not to be a part of the work force. Without Curry County's retirement population, the job market could be a lot worse off, said Guy Tower, regional economist with the Oregon Worksource Employment Office.
The high number of over 65 year-olds and retired people in Curry County means that many area residents have already secured their retirement and are not in the job market. But Rich Rohde, Rogue Valley organizer with Oregon Action, a community-based organization that advocates for social justice issues with low to moderate income people, said that everyone needs to care about job wages in their community. For starters, living wage jobs keep taxes low.
"Having a strong community with people who are able to be self-sustainable is in the interest of all people," Rohde said.
"When people have a living wage, they're able to contribute to the community rather that just struggle all the time."
A fair share?
So why does Curry County have less than its fair share of jobs and more than its fair share of jobs that pay less than a living wage? The answers are not simple, Rohde said.
"There's a whole lot of factors that go into it. There's not just one," Rhode said."
Some employers believe that market forces should determine wages, he said. And they often think that low wages beget low wages, he said. A decline in unionization and workers who do not push for their rights also contribute to the problem, Rohde said.
Tower said that the county's job market has a seasonal component to it, which means many Curry County jobs come and go throughout the year. The tourists who help boost job availability during the summer months also take the jobs with them as they vacate the coast in the winter.
"It makes it challenging for employers to find workers in the summer, in the peak months. But on the other hand it's hard for workers to find employment in the winter," Tower said.
Ice cream treats are in such high demand during the summer at Slugs N' Stones N' Ice Cream Cones in Brookings that four workers are needed to scoop the stuff. Another two to three employees are on staff to help with the cash register and other duties. Co-owner Willa Jones said that the daily staff of about six people dwindles to just two during the winters.
The wax and wane of employees that follows the wax and wane of tourists is typical of many jobs in Curry County, said economist Guy Tower. Also typical among Curry County jobs: low wages.
While tourism may add jobs to the economy, the jobs the industry creates are typically those that pay less than a living wage. Tourists typically demand services that fuel the retail, leisure, hospitality, food and lodging industries. These jobs account for roughly 3,380 of Curry County's 7,045 jobs or nearly half of the job market, according to Oregon State Employment Division statistics. But the annual pay for these jobs averages between about $11,000 and $21,000 per year less than a living wage. That forces many employees into working two or more jobs. That's what Patrick Garton found he needed to do to make ends meet.
Garton found that he needed at least two jobs in order to pay the bills while he worked in retail at a local gas station. But Garton recently lost that retail work. Now Garton works just one job at the Port of Brookings Harbor. It's an office job that helps pad Garton's resume and teaches the Brookings-Harbor High School alum some marketable job skills. But Garton said that one job is not enough. Especially in Brookings.
"Unless you have a really good paying job, you can't live alone," the 19 year-old said.
For Gerald Smith, policy analyst with the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations, a lack of awareness helps to keep regional wages low.
"What's not going on is there's not enough attention being paid to creating living wage jobs," Smith said.
Smith said that the Job Gap study could help highlight the problems associated with widespread, low-wage work.
"This information can be used to help legislators and businesses work together to help remedy the situation," Smith said.
Amid the recent national debate raging over proposals to increase the federal minimum wage, some Oregon lawmakers pushed for measures aimed at helping the state's workers find jobs that pay a living wage. Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski recently introduced the "Skill Up Oregon" bill that would fund workforce training for people seeking work in high demand occupations. Other communities have passed laws in recent years to boost wages so that employees can afford the cost of living. More than 70 communities across the nation have approved ordinances that mandate employers pay their workers a living wage, according to a recent report by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now, a national advocacy organization for low to moderate income people.
A boost in local wages could help keep workers closer to their Oregon homes, local employees say. Sam Gates is considering a move to a community where high wages and good jobs are the norm. And low local wages and a high cost of living has Garton looking beyond the town he grew up in to make a living.
"I'm trying to get out (of Brookings)," he said.