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Wildhorse: ‘Jobs plentiful, candidates scarce’

County’s largest employer short dozens of positions with expansion on the horizon
Antonio Sierra

East Oregonian

Published on August 24, 2018 4:42PM

Executive chef Jeff Sommer watches over the work of some of his line cooks in February 2018 as they do the morning prep work in the main kitchen at Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Mission.

Staff photo by E.J. Harris

Executive chef Jeff Sommer watches over the work of some of his line cooks in February 2018 as they do the morning prep work in the main kitchen at Wildhorse Resort & Casino in Mission.

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On Wednesday, Wildhorse Casino and Resort sent out a press release that would have been unfathomable 10 years ago: dozens of jobs are available and Wildhorse and the rest of the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation was having trouble filling them.

In a press releases entitled “Jobs plentiful, candidates scarce,” Wildhorse states that the low unemployment rate “translates to headaches for recruiters and business owners in Mission, Pendleton, and across the country.”

At more than 1,700 employees, the CTUIR is the second largest employer in Umatilla County, which is currently sporting a 4.5 percent unemployment rate.

According to the press release, the CTUIR and its various enterprises had 66 job vacancies as of mid-August, ranging from bus drivers to archaeologists.

In a statement, Wildhorse employment manager Dorothy Cyr said passing a background check can be a barrier for some candidates while also pointing to local housing shortages.

“While it’s certainly good that jobs are plentiful and the economy is improving, finding qualified employees to fill the positions created by that growing economy is an arduous task,” the press release states.

In an interview, Wildhorse human resources director Lorena Thompson said as many as 5 percent of applicants will not pass the gaming background check.

The CTUIR isn’t the only employer looking for hired help.

Mid Columbia Bus Co. has a 15-20 percent turnover rate every year and is in constant need of bus drivers. Top Pendleton employers like Keystone RV and Hill Meat are also consistently advertising for unfilled jobs.

Despite the current surplus of jobs, Dallas Fridley, a regional economist for the Oregon Employment Department, said Umatilla County’s employment rate has been slower to fall post-recession than the rest of the state as job growth has been offset by events like the closure of the Umatilla Chemical Depot. Currently, Umatilla County’s unemployment rate is about a half-point under the state’s average. Additionally, a low unemployment rate in Umatilla County hasn’t equaled a dramatic increase in wages.

According to the Oregon Employment Department, private sector wages in Umatilla County rose from an average of $34,785 per year in 2014 to $36,105 in 2018, only a 3.8 percent increase.

When the public sector is added, wages have risen by a slightly more robust 5 percent, but both figures don’t match the inflationary rate, which rose 6 percent during that time period.

Umatilla County was outpaced by the state in both overall wages and its rate of growth, with overall wages rising from $46,896 to 51,117, a 10 percent increase.

Fridley said the overall economic outlook looks good for Umatilla County. Due to a combination of a younger and more diverse workforce and strong agriculture and food processing industries, Fridley anticipates the unemployment rate should stay low.

And if that is the case, Fridley thinks the pressure on wages should mean local residents should see their paychecks start to rise.

Thompson, the Wildhorse HR director, said the company evaluates wages each year to see how they correspond with the Oregon minimum wage and the pay at other American Indian casinos and often raises payrates as a result.

Thompson said the previous employees used to be reliable source of labor, returning to the Wildhorse fold after working elsewhere for a while. But even with wages rising, Thompson said former Wildhorse employees are working elsewhere and staying there.

“It’s kind of a tough labor market right now,” Cyr, the employment manager, said.

While Wildhorse’s job offerings remain in the single digits at this point, the problem could be compounded as the tribes plan a multi-million dollar expansion. Thompson doesn’t know how many more staff the new facilities will require, but she knows there will be a need.

In the meantime, Wildhorse spokeswoman Mary Liberty-Traughber said the resort and casino plans to hold more recruiting events to fill its vacancies.


Contact Antonio Sierra at asierra@eastoregonian.com or 541-966-0836.


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