Gearing up for shutdown
Employment shock of depot closure looms
Posted: Sunday, July 17, 2011
By ERIN MILLS
Maria Duron is one of hundreds of people, either working for or somehow connected with the Umatilla Chemical Depot, working themselves out of a job and possibly out of Eastern Oregon.
"I'm trying to decide what to do," Duron said. "Right now the economy is really rough ... it kind of forces you to sit down and think about what your future looks like."
A mother of three, Duron is a public information officer for the Chemical Stockpile Emergency Preparedness Program. She sends out CSEPP news releases, gives classroom presentations and helps people prepare for emergencies. Her job will begin ramping down in November, when the Army demilitarization contractor URS is expected to finish destroying chemical munitions at the depot. Funding for her position will end about six months after.
Duron works for the Intermountain Education Service District, which has a contract with CSEPP. Hopefully, she said, the education service district will have a job for her once her position with CSEPP is over. But she's not counting on it — the district has lost state funding and may not have a place for her.
"I'm one of the people with big question mark over them," she said.
Roughly 1,000 people will lose their jobs once the Army's mission at the depot is finished. They are security guards, military leaders, clerks and skilled URS workers, among others. The Army is concerned about them, and is helping them find jobs elsewhere or retrain for new positions in the civilian world.
"It's tough out there, especially for those who want to stay local," The depot commander, Lt. Col. Kris Perkins, told the Hermiston School District board last week.
Of less concern to the Army is what the sudden disappearance of hundreds of well-paying jobs will do to Eastern Oregon's fragile economy. A little more than half of the depot's workers live in Umatilla and Morrow counties; there are also satellite jobs around the depot, such as Duron's CSEPP position and local suppliers.
Not every worker will leave, of course. But many, especially those who work for the federal government, are not likely to find similar jobs in Eastern Oregon. The loss of these workers and their families will ripple throughout the economy; the businesses they frequent, the community organizations they support and the schools their children attend will suffer from the loss. The homes they sell may not find a ready buyer.
Perkins, for example, lives in Hermiston and has three children who attend West Park Elementary School. His wife, Jacque Perkins, is the president of the parent-teacher organization. He expects to be assigned elsewhere within a year, but doesn't know where.
Bruce Sorte, an Oregon State University community economist, estimates the total economic loss of all those jobs at more than $17 million. Although only about 450 locals will lose jobs, he estimates that 73 related jobs will be lost, along with 162 among the businesses such as food services, nursing and retail stores. The total number of jobs lost in Umatilla and Morrow counties would be around 685. When Sorte added up the estimated income loss for every sector of the economy, he came up with $17,498,810.
"It's pretty phenomenal," he said. "It feels funny to me to come up with numbers that large and not have everyone just going crazy."
Jodi Florence, another CSEPP public information officer, is among those who plan to stay in Eastern Oregon, where she has roots and a family.
"I guess you could say I'm open to looking at any opportunity," she said.
Florence, who holds an associate's degree in human resources, used to work for Umatilla County's parole and probation department. She doesn't fear being jobless, just ending up in a dead-end job.
"That's really what the issue is," she said. "Finding a job that I'm qualified for, that I enjoy and that also pays the bills."
Sorte said the economic loss of the depot will take about three years to play out — it won't be an sudden shock, as in Simplot's closure in 2004. Simplot, a potato processing plant, employed about 625 people. Area leaders worried the closure would plunge the Hermiston area into a recession. That did not happen, although local merchants certainly felt Simplot's loss. But many of those workers found jobs elsewhere in Eastern Oregon.
The depot situation is different because the majority of workers are skilled, and more likely to move to find jobs that suit them. But Sorte said the economy will be no means come to a standstill.
"You're not going to stop and reverse this economy with the chemical depot," he said.
Area leaders are also working to cushion the blow; The Hermiston Chamber of Commerce, for example, has formed the Eastern Oregon Economic Alliance, a group of government leaders and business owners, to find ways to keep depot workers in our region.
"We all need to work together to come up with good solutions," Chamber Director Debbie Pedro said.