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What's A 'Discouraged Worker?'

There are about 1.6 million jobs in Oregon — a number that hasn’t changed much over the last year.  But the unemployment rate has dropped significantly — from about 11 percent down to nine percent in that time.

There are several reasons why: many people have gone back to school, decided to look after a family member, or retired.

But there are also a significant number of workers the state classifies as “discouraged,” instead of unemployed.

With December’s unemployment figures due out this week, Kristian Foden-Vencil took a look at who those discouraged workers are.

The the government splits the workforce into three basic groups: those with a job; those looking for a job; and those who are “not in the labor force.”

Many who fit that last category are under 16, retired, or going to college.  But says state employment economist, Nick Beleiciks, some are “discouraged.”


OPB asked individuals in our Public Insight Network what it’s like to be a “discouraged worker.” Click on the points above to see responses from people who consider themselves unemployed or underemployed. Map created by Emily Taylor.

“Discouraged workers are people who haven’t looked for work in the last four weeks, but they have in the last year. So they were in the labor market recently, but then they decided that they wouldn’t be able to find a job because of the economy so they’ve become discouraged and stopped looking for a job,” Beleiciks explains.

“Stopped looking for a job” makes it sound like they’re sitting at home, twiddling their thumbs. But nothing could be further form the truth, says James Needham of Molalla.

“It certainly isn’t because I haven’t tried. I have submitted more resumes and applications than I can count,” Needham, who lost his job with a construction company in 2008, said. He now fits the definition of a discouraged worker. 

“I’m ashamed of the fact that I don’t have a job and I’m not self-reliant. I don’t want to have people ask me about, well have you found a job yet? You know, and have to tell them no, I’ve only been looking for three years.”

He’s 65 and thinks he never gets hired because of his age.

He doesn’t think it’s right that he isn’t counted among Oregon’s unemployed.

“I think it’s a false impression that they give to the public that the employment is getting better. When it’s not getting better. It’s just these statistics are downright false.”

Oregon’s most recent statistics show the state has about 8000 “discouraged” workers. They also show the unemployment rate is 9.1 percent.

State economist Nick Beleiciks says the unemployment rate would increase if discouraged workers were counted.

“When we factor in discouraged workers to the unemployment rate it would probably be about 9.8 percent.”

The average time people are unemployed is difficult to pin down.  But about 30 percent have been out of work for more than a year.

Another figure the the state has trouble pinning down is the number of discouraged workers who start generating jobs — by setting-up their own businesses.

Take Portland-based editor Shane Warden. He was laid-off in 2009 and went to the state’s job center. 

“When they handed me the job prospects … there was one position for an editor in the past three years. It was very disheartening,” Warden said.

He was classified as a “discouraged worker.”  But he took what he calls a “dormant side-business,” publishing books, and turned it into his new career.

“If it doesn’t work that’s fine, I’ll find something else. If it does work, great I’ve created a jobs and I may create jobs for other people.”

He’s no longer a “discouraged worker,” and he’s now making $85,000 a year, about the same as he did at his old job.

“I do think I was too comfortable there before. It’s a painful kick-in-the-pants. But I do think overall I am better off. My wife says I’m certainly happier.”

Rosemary McGrath pets her dog Maggie May.

Kristian Foden-Vencil / OPB

And what about workers who are “under employed?”

Rosemary McGrath puts herself in that category. Back in 2008, she was riding high, helping construction companies get LEED environmental certificates  for their buildings.

She was president of the state’s chapter of the American Society of Interior Design But then she was laid off and now works several jobs: gardening, proof reading and advising IKEA customers about kitchen cabinets.

“I was hired at the same time as a young woman who is about a third my age and hasn’t yet finished college. So to say that I’m overqualified is kind of an understatement. I’m an interior designer,” McGarth said.

McGrath is making half of what she used to make and says she’s resigned to never getting back to her previous position. But she stresses, she is happy to have work.

Sources for this story came to us via our Public Insight Network. You can read more stories from people in the network and learn how you can become a source at

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