Downtown Salem's usually busy streets were nearly empty during the lunch hour on March 17, 2020, the first day of a statewide restaurant closure (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

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Unemployment claims filed by workers in Marion and Polk counties nearly quadrupled last week as the hospitality industry and others shed jobs as a result of the coronavirus outbreak.

According to numbers released by the Oregon Employment Department on Thursday, 1,282 Marion County workers filed claims for unemployment benefits last week. The previous week 331 claims were filed and 344 the week prior.

Polk County saw a similarly precipitous rise. Last week, 260 claims were filed, up from 58 the previous week and 62 the week before.

Patrick O’Connor, a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said that the department has received over 76,500 claims last week but only 22,800 have been reviewed by staff. He said that the numbers for counties released on Thursday only reflect claims that have been processed and numbers for individual counties will rise as staff review more.

As businesses across the state shuttered and supply chains were disrupted by the public health crisis, Oregon has seen a sharp rise in unemployment claims. During the week of March 8, nearly 5,000 workers filed for unemployment, a number that has shot up as schools, restaurants and other businesses have closed.

As expected, by far most of those seeking unemployment came from the leisure and hospitality industry with 10,654 workers statewide filing claims .

O’Connor didn’t have specific information on Marion or Polk County industries but said that he expects the Mid-Willamette Valley economy to mirror the overall state trend.

“Very similar patterns are taking place everywhere,” he said.

He said the data include surprises.

The second-largest source of unemployment claims came from education and health services with 2,695. Specifically, 561 workers from educational services filed for unemployment and 2,134 health care and social assistance workers filed for unemployment.

He said that the shortage of personal protective equipment has led to elective surgeries being put on hold and dentists are seeing fewer patients, which may explain the increase.

Another surprise is construction. Last week, 1,246 construction workers filed for unemployment, up from the 858 claims filed the week of March 8.

On Wednesday, Congress passed a massive relief package that expands unemployment benefits and makes self-employed people eligible. O’Connor said that agency employees are evaluating how it will affect Oregon’s unemployment system and existing claims.

The release of data showing the rise in unemployment comes after years of positive economic news and record low unemployment. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Salem area in January had an unemployment rate of 4% and 127,000 total private jobs and 42,000 government jobs. The unemployment rate for both Marion and Polk counties stood at just under 4%.

No large scale layoffs and opportunities

O’Connor said in an email that he has not heard of any significant layoffs in the Salem area. The state’s Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification, which requires companies with 100 or more employees to post advance notices of layoffs, doesn’t include any recent notices from Salem employers.

O’Connor said that one larger employer that closed is the Grand Ronde Tribe’s Spirit Mountain Casino, which he said could push unemployment claims higher depending on how long it remains closed.

One bright spot in the economy is grocery stores and companies that distribute goods.

Kim Parker-Llerenas, executive director of the Willamette Workforce Partnership, said that there will be continuing job opportunities in the food supply chain including warehouses and truck drivers who bring food to grocery stores.

Earlier this month, online retail giant Amazon posted on its blog that it would be hiring 100,000 more workers across the U.S. in response to people relying on its delivery services during the outbreak.

Amazon has opened a fulfillment center in Salem and Parker-Llerenas said that the company is hiring.