Oregon’s unemployment rate inched down again in December, though it was measured too early in the month to account for the widespread disruption of the omicron surge.

The state added 8,200 jobs last month. Unemployment decreased to 4.1% from 4.2% in November, marking the 20th month in a row the state’s jobless rate has improved.

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The national unemployment rate was 3.9% in December.

In Oregon, December job gains were biggest in the leisure and hospitality sector, as well as in health care and social assistance, manufacturing, and professional and business services.

But despite businesses such as gyms, hotels and restaurants gaining more than 2,600 jobs last month, they still have a long way to go. The leisure and hospitality sector ended the year 23,000 jobs below its pre-pandemic peak.

An exterior image of a Marriott Hotel with a skyscraper rising behind it.

A file photo of downtown Portland's Marriot Hotel from 2011. Unemployment declined slightly in December with some gains in the leisure and hospitality sector but restaurants and hotels like still have lots of room for growth. The recent omicron surge hasn't helped.

Rick Bowmer / AP

The state closed out 2021 with near-record high job vacancies. Private employers listed 103,000 job openings between October and December, ratcheting up the already-intense pressure to compete for workers. The sheer number of open positions dwarfed the state’s pre-pandemic high of 66,000 vacancies in the summer of 2017.

“We’re not just a little bit above where we were before. This is head and shoulders above where we’ve been before,” said economist Gail Krumenauer with the Oregon Employment Department.

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Average starting wages rose to $21 per hour in the fall, Krumenauer said. That’s a head-turning 14% increase, year-over-year, after adjusting for inflation.

But even rising wages can’t make up for this fact:

There are now more job openings in Oregon than there are unemployed people.

The pandemic is still making it hard for many people to be available for work. And the omicron surge is exacerbating that.

The December jobs report presents a snapshot in time, measured before the full impact of the omicron wave hit workers and employers. And that wave has been powerful. Infections have spread at breakneck speed, shuttering classrooms, childcare facilities, and temporarily sidelining employees.

In early December, roughly 46,000 adults in Oregon didn’t work because they were afraid of getting or spreading COVID-19, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey. Another 34,000 Oregonians didn’t work because they had COVID-19 or were caring for someone with symptoms.

That’s about 80,000 people sidelined by pandemic health concerns in early December, and that doesn’t include people out of work because of layoffs, business closures, or childcare duties.

By early January, that number had shot up. More than 104,000 Oregonians weren’t working because they either had COVID-19, were caring for someone with symptoms, or were afraid of getting infected.

The Census cautions that Household Pulse Survey data is experimental, and sample sizes can be small.

The Employment Department says any impact of the omicron surge on employment won’t be seen until the jobs report covering the month of January. In the meantime, the agency is urging employers to make use of the state’s Work Share program to reduce layoffs during the surge.

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The leisure and hospitality sector, which was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the broad professional and business services sector led the expansion in October.