Thursday, February 16, 2006

Job Losses in Malheur Remain Bittersweet

One of the most interesting counties in Oregon is Harney County, a mammoth stretch of over 10,000 square miles, populated by around 7,000. If it weren't for the town of Burns, it might be the most isolated part of the lower 48--and even so, it's a whole lot of nobody.

Just eastward is more of the same--Oregon's massive natural beauty--but Malheur County is almost metropolitain by comparison: a whopping 31,000 residents scrunched into 9,000 square miles. The chief urban jungle in Malheur, Nyssa, is perhaps best known by West Cascaders as the town whose "stripper buffer" rule was struck down as unconstitutional under Oregon's free expression provisions.

It was a rare 2005 victory for the wage worker in Malheur (at least the ones who want to establish closeness with their stripper). In January, Amalgamated Sugar Company told its employees in Nyssa it was giving up on the food processing business there, one of the major industries in the county. And while Idahoans may come to Miss Sally's for "free expression," Oregonians had to cross over into Nampa, near Boise, in order to follow the company and keep their jobs.

The results on the local economy and character were reported today by the Ontario Argus Observer (Ontario being the biggest big burg of Malheur at 11,000 people). Why do I keep mentioning the small numbers of people in the county? Not to patronize rural towns, but to make people from bigger areas realize how devastating a loss of 500 jobs is to an area that small. Put in perspective, a similar loss of industry in Portland relative to the total population would be over 88,000 jobs in a single year.

Clearly, the area is hurting. Some employees had to find multiple jobs to replace the steady work at Amalgamated, some simply worked less. Others went to school, and yet others left the area entirely, some surely to Idaho. But how could they pay for those things?

In a rare example of government doing largely as it was designed to do, the former employees of the sugar company were able to avail themselves of training programs and relocation assistance as the result of federal measures to soften the blow of NAFTA. The employees qualified for the grants arranged and administered by the state's Training and Employment Consortium Office:
Jeaneth Mendoza, workforce development specialist at the TEC office, said 140 people signed up for programs at the agency. Programs include everything from basic job search assistance, such as resume writing and interviewing, to working toward a two-year degree at Treasure Valley Community College. One student is attending BYU-Idaho, Mendoza said. “Some went for on-the-job training,” she said.

What was available to the former employees depended on whether they were fulltime or seasonal employees and how much time they had put in for the plant. Because they were not eligible for unemployment, some workers just had to go and find jobs for financial reasons, Mendoza said, but they are still eligible to get training later paid for under the Trade Adjustment Assistance Act, as long as the money is available.

Often, the best way to make big changes is to make a lot of little ones. One of my favorite examples of not being too daunted by big problems to enact many tiny solutions is the microcredit approach to development. By giving many people very small loans, their improved lives can immediately impact the lives of the people they come in contact with in a positive way.

And while it's neither perfect nor a real solution to the continued erosion of manufacturing jobs in rural Oregon, small grants for job training and even relocation are the smart way to go, to keep displaced workers off of state support rolls and ultimately the streets.

When Portlanders next have occassion to bitch about Columbia Sportswear leaving for Washington County, let them think of 16% of Portlanders losing their jobs because of just one company that closed. If NAFTA represents fearless capitalism, speedy retraining, educational and relocation assistance are the compassionate side of economics--something in this case government is best equipped to provide.