Wyden, Merkley decry Union Pacific layoffs in Hermiston

Oregon’s two U.S. senators sent a sternly worded letter to Union Pacific on Wednesday, decrying nearly 200 layoffs at the railroad’s facilities near Hermiston.

“We are deeply concerned about rural Oregon economies and your company’s actions as it appears to risk destabilizing already fragile communities,” senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley wrote. “While the company has substantial resources to reinvest and modify operations over time, many of these workers and their families are not so fortunate.”

Union Pacific announced the layoffs Tuesday, attributing the job cuts to “efforts to run an efficient railroad.” The layoffs are part of a broader series of cuts the Nebraska company is making over a two-year period in hopes of boosting profits.

With Tuesday’s layoffs the region has now lost 250 Union Pacific jobs over the past year, according to Hermiston Mayor Dave Drotzmann. He wrote on Twitter Tuesday that the city is working on support projects for those who lost their jobs.

Wyden and Merkley, both Democrats, said the Hermiston layoffs “create potential safety risks for the remaining employees” given hazardous materials that move through rural Oregon, often during difficult weather. They said closure of Union Pacific’s mechanical shop would reduce oversight and inspection.

Union Pacific did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the senators’ letter.

There are just 36,400 workers altogether in Umatilla County, where this week’s layoffs took place. The county’s jobless rate was 5.3 percent last month.

The senators said prior Union Pacific layoffs hurt rural farmers and shippers by making it more difficult to transport goods to market. Wyden and Merkley said shippers have told them it is difficult to reach the railroad’s customer service to address problems.

Laid-off employees have the right to transfer to other Union Pacific sites, according to the senators, but they said “the potential outmigration of much needed family-wage jobs in rural Eastern Oregon will do serious long-term damage to the local economy and local tax base.”