Study: Living-wage jobs dwindle with recession

The recession has shrunk the number of living-wage jobs available in Jackson County, leaving more people scrambling for each job that pays at least $12.15 per hour, a new study reports.

That's the amount — roughly $25,000 a year — that a single person in the county needs to earn to pay for basic needs, such as food, housing and transportation, according to the study, co-released Tuesday by Oregon Action and Northwest Federation of Community Organizations.

"We have a situation where, in Southern Oregon and Jackson County, we have a very high unemployment rate," said Rich Rohde, Ashland resident and regional organizer for Oregon Action, a nonprofit social justice group. "You don't have to go very far in Ashland to find people who are struggling with the economy."

The county's jobless rate was 7.6 in October, the highest that month since the Oregon Employment Department began using the present tracking system in 1990 and slightly higher than the state's 7.3 unemployment rate.

Statewide, an average of 19 people are vying for each job that pays at least $26.70 per hour, the living wage for a family of three, according to the "2008 Job Gap, Tough Times for Northwest Families" study, which used state and federal data to create the statistics in the report.

In Jackson County, where the living wage for a family of three is 59 cents less than the state figure — reflecting the slightly lower cost of living — competition for open positions is likely even higher than the statewide numbers suggest because of the county's high jobless rate, Rohde said.

In Oregon, only 14 percent of positions listed as open will pay a salary that meets the basic needs of a single parent with two kids, according to the report. And for each open position that pays at least $12.39, the living wage for a single person, there is an average of four job seekers statewide, the study found.

About 8,000 people were looking for work in Jackson County in October, according to OED data, and Viveca Walnum was one of them — she's been looking for more than two years.

The former Ashland resident, who moved to Medford in July, held an office job at Southern Oregon University for about 15 years, after graduating from the school then called Southern Oregon State College with a B.S. in sociology. But in 2004, she was laid off due to budget cuts. Desperate for work, she signed on again with SOU — as a custodian.

Since losing that job in April 2006, Walnum, 54, has been searching for employment, working temporary jobs for a few months at a time. She's now considering moving to Salem where she believes it would be easier to find another office job.

"It's very frustrating. I feel depressed," she said Thursday. "I just see the wages going down, down. Most jobs that I look at, $10 is the highest, and there's a lot of jobs that are part-time or like $8 an hour and no health benefits."

Walnum's story, according to Rohde, is common in the county.

"People with a lot of really good skills and education and all that, are taking low wage jobs because that's what they can get. That's not new in Southern Oregon, but now jobs are just at a drastic low," he said.

While he applauded an aspect of Gov. Ted Kulongoski's proposed budget released last month that would provide more children with medical coverage, Rohde said cuts to other human services programs included in the budget will hurt low-income families. Oregon Action hopes state lawmakers will not enact the social services cuts when they vote on the budget, Rohde said.

"When there are good times and we don't have as many living-wage jobs, it's one thing, but when we have the kind of crisis that we have now and we have fewer living-wage jobs, it's critical that the state maintain the safety net for everybody," he said.

Staff writer Hannah Guzik can be reached at 482-3456 ext. 226 or

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