Signs in windows and doorways throughout Salem are alerting residents to changing business hours and access limits as life adjusts to pandemic times. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

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The Salem area economy showed signs of slowing before the COVID-19 pandemic brought much of the state’s economy to a halt, according to new numbers from the Oregon Employment Department.

On Tuesday, the department released numbers putting Salem's unemployment rate at 3.6% for March. However, the department noted that the data used to calculate the rate doesn't capture the devastating effect the public health crisis has had on the labor market.

On March 17, Gov. Kate Brown banned gatherings of 25 or more people and prohibited restaurants from offering dine-in service. A week later, she ordered residents to stay home.

Since then, the Employment Department has seen 297,000 claims for unemployment benefits, surpassing the number of claims filed during the Great Recession. Employment numbers the department plans to release next month are expected to provide a more complete picture of how the pandemic has affected the labor market.

Before the outbreak, Salem’s economy had outpaced the rest of the state, adding 2,400 jobs over the past year, or a 1.4% increase, according to a department press release.

As of March, 193,777 people in the Salem area were employed. The press release states that the Salem area shed an estimated 100 jobs in March when an increase of about 500 would be expected.

“Salem’s March employment gains were less than normal,” reads the press release.

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.