Benton County was tied for Oregon’s lowest unemployment rate in February, according to date released by the Oregon Employment Department last week.

The unemployment rate in Benton County fell to 3%, down from 3.1% in January, and the dip was due to modest gains in the local government and leisure and hospitality sectors.

Benton County was tied with much less populated Wheeler County in February. Wheeler County’s unemployment remained unchanged from January.

Across the Willamette River in Linn County, the unemployment rate was 4.4%, down from 4.5% in January.

Employers pay about 39,800 workers across Benton County.

Economist Pat O’Connor said Benton County’s figures are a return to form. Corvallis and surrounding areas show strong employment and little volatility during recessions that spur layoffs and calls to the state for unemployment benefits elsewhere.

“Good times or bad times, we always seem to have one of the lowest unemployment rates because of who we are,” he said.

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O’Connor, who covers labor trends for the state in the mid-valley, said the sinking unemployment rate is another indicator that the Corvallis-area job market is stabilizing after a pandemic-induced recession.

Oregon State University weighs those numbers down, as workers with more education tend to hold on to jobs more commonly than workers with less education. More of the county’s workforce with more education probably means smaller and more stable unemployment rates.

“OSU is a big university in a relatively small county,” O’Connor said.

While higher-paid workers usually are the first axed in a recession, the economic region anchored around Corvallis and OSU saw in-person businesses close with low-paid, frontline workers staying home or switching industries.

O’Connor said that at the onset of closures tens of thousands of leisure and hospitality workers migrated to other industries with similar education requirements including warehousing.

Employers have struggled to fill job openings as they did before the recession.

Benton County unemployment generally has hovered between 3.1 and 3.2% since 2017. That rate bottomed out in December 2019 – 2.6% just before the start of the pandemic.

In April 2020, at the height of a coronavirus-spurred recession, Benton County unemployment reached 9.9%, led mostly by hospitality and leisure jobs.

The county has seen a 48% drop in hospitality and leisure unemployment, mostly defined by people who are working age and eligible for unemployment benefits taking jobs in food service roles.

February’s numbers are well below the statewide average of 4% for the same period and 3.8% unemployment at the national level.

In Linn County, food service-related jobs still weren’t back to their pre-pandemic levels.

“It’s a reminder that certainly there are still a lot of industries trying to get back up to those levels,” O’Connor said.

In February 2020, before COVID-19 hit Oregon and the state responded with restrictions that caused massive job losses, Linn County’s unemployment rate was 3.8%.

Linn County’s unemployment rate surged to 13.9% in April 2020.

While the 4.4% unemployment rate for Linn County wasn’t a return to pre-pandemic levels, that mark is still, by any historic measure, a great figure for Albany, Lebanon, Sweet Home and surrounding areas.

A few years ago, dipping below 5% in Linn County would have been cause for celebration and a new record – the state began tracking county-by-county data in 1990.

Alex Powers covers business, environment and healthcare for Mid-Valley Media. Contact him at 541-812-6116 or alex.powers@lee.net.

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