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Economy

What’s Working: More Coloradans are working or looking for work now than before the pandemic

Unemployment is still high with the state’s unemployment rate stuck at 6.4%. Also: Frontline stories on labor shortage vs. meager pay, a $3,000 job incentive and last call for SBA COVID relief programs.

  • Credibility:

Signs of a strong job recovery in Colorado were evident in new data that shows more Coloradans were working or were looking for a job in April than before the pandemic.

According to state Department of Labor and Employment officials, there were nearly 3.2 million Coloradans participating in the labor force in April, compared with 3.15 million in February 2020. That pushed the labor force participation rate — which compares people with a job or looking for one to the overall population — to 68.7%, the same rate as February 2020.

“That rate of 68.7% was tied with South Dakota for the second highest in the nation last month,” said Ryan Gedney, the labor department’s senior economist. “Colorado is now one of only seven states to fully regain their pre-pandemic participation rate. Colorado was tied with Massachusetts for the sixth fastest recovery in the labor force participation rates.”

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But what hasn’t improved — though it hasn’t worsened — is the state’s unemployment rate, which stayed at 6.4% for the third straight month. Gedney said the reason for this is because the number of jobs and size of the labor force are growing at a similar pace. 

In fact, the state is still missing 128,100 nonfarm payroll jobs that were lost during March and April of last year. And some industries are still not growing. “Information, finance and insurance and construction have experienced varying levels of job loss,” he said.

That may explain why 16,000 Coloradans filed for unemployment for the first time in April.  That’s 3.5 times more people than two years ago, Gedney said. There were also an estimated 160,984 people collecting unemployment benefits for the week that ended on May 8.

“I just want to still emphasize that the economy is very dynamic,” he said. “We’re still seeing relatively high levels of claims activity and you’ve got to keep that in mind when we talk about the impacted labor force.”

→ ICYMI: Unlike (now) 22 other states, Colorado will keep paying federal unemployment benefits to gig workers, people who’ve exhausted state benefits and the $300 weekly bonus until the federal relief program ends Sept. 6. >> STORY

→ Another sign of economic recovery? CDLE is ending its weekly public notifications of how many Coloradans are on unemployment so staff “can focus their efforts on getting people back to work,” Barela said during the Friday news conference. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Frontline stories: Labor shortage or meager pay?

Thanks to everyone who shared their take on whether we’re in a labor shortage because unemployed workers can rely on federal benefits or because the promoted jobs just don’t pay enough to survive in Colorado.

No surprise, I’m hearing both. 

Many readers are also offering additional reasons about the causes since it’s never clear cut. The Colorado Restaurant Association, for example, says 90% of its members surveyed are having trouble filling summer patio jobs partly because many reopening businesses are competing for the same staff. Mid-career welder Alex Wilson told me that the only openings he’s now seeing are for entry level positions that would mean a 30% pay cut so he’s considering switching careers. 

Here are more from my inbox:

  • Alice Flanders said she’s a cashier in a convenience store, who recently found herself with fewer coworkers: “We are short of help now, and two employees just gave their notice, they found higher wage jobs.”
  • A highway contractor in New Mexico said they start everyone at $18.70 per hour and offer training to workers with no skills. The gross weekly wage is $748. “People on unemployment here make $700 a week gross,” and are not interested in working, this person wrote. “It’s only human nature.” 
  • Laurie Cadwell, who owns the Big City Burrito in Fort Collins, said she’s never had such a hard time finding enough workers, who start at $14 an hour. She’s so short on staff that the eatery has had to close for lunch often. “We do not allow customers to dine in and employees must double mask. I was getting pretty good employees hired for a while but THE WEEK the extra unemployment started, that totally dried up,” she said in an email.
  • Minimum wage — currently $12.32 an hour in Colorado — or even a few dollars more “is not nearly enough to cover the expenses of living in Colorado. Especially when the rent takes nearly two checks to cover,” emailed Jackie Jewell, who works full-time at a big box store for slightly more than minimum wage. Her unemployed spouse stays at home to watch their newborn because day care costs $800 a month. She’s looking for a second job.
  • The town of Frisco can’t find enough seasonal workers for its marina, Mayor Hunter Mortensen said. “Currently, we are 40 employees short to help run our marina, summer camps, trail crews, parks and public works. As an employer that is terrifying, but for me in my role, it is far more than that. All of our local businesses are in the same battle, and the government’s success depends on our local business success,” he said. But the underlying issue, he said, is there is not enough affordable housing for workers.

SHARE YOUR STORY: As with any hot-button topic, reality is far more complex than a headline. Tell me your situation:

  • If you’re unemployed or underemployed, tell me about available jobs and which ones you had hoped to get, got passed over or were rejected.  
  • Employers, tell me how you’re addressing staffing shortages and whether Colorado’s new $1,600 incentive (see below) is helping. 
  • Email me at tamara@coloradosun.com

Pay people to go back to work

How many unemployed workers are really just sitting at home because federal jobless benefits pay more than returning to work? The state is experimenting with the Colorado Jumpstart program to see if $1,600 is enough to incentivize those workers.

But right off the bat, the incentive isn’t enough to persuade someone to go back to work if they only want to collect a weekly unemployment check plus the $300 federal bonus. The $1,600 is 33% less than what someone would minimally make on unemployment over an eight-week period (the minimum period someone must work to get the full Jumpstart benefit).

→ The overview and fine print: Colorado is offering up to $1,600 to people on unemployment who find a full-time job

The Jumpstart program is meant to help Colorado businesses hire enough staff now, said Joe Barela, the Department of Labor’s executive director.

“At this time, unemployment may be paying those people more money. But that doesn’t come with benefits. It doesn’t come with health insurance. It’s going to end in September. And so we want those people to return to work before that program ends,” Barela said. “We think the incentive will help people make that decision as they return to work.”

Now open to part-timers: After meeting with the small businesses and the restaurant industry, state officials expanded Jumpstart to include “fully engaged” part-time workers. That means if a part-time worker’s pay exceeds or is equal to their weekly unemployment pay, they are eligible for the $1,600 bonus after eight weeks of work — they won’t qualify for unemployment pay anway. (The bonus drops to $1,200 for those who return to work between May 30 and June 26.)

New funding source: The initial $500,000 in funding was taken from the Department of Public Health and Environment’s Coronavirus Relief Fund, by executive order. With roughly 138,000 people eligible though, the Governor’s Office of State Planning and Budgeting estimated the cost to the state will be between $36 million to $57 million. Additional money is expected to come from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. 

“We intend to cover these costs using CRF made available by increased FEMA reimbursement  for public health expenses. The Executive Order will be extended every 30 days after we have determined the number of claimants who have opted into the program, after which time there will be a funds transfer,” said Jessica Hudgins Smith, press secretary for the Division of Unemployment Insurance.

What about a $3,000 signing bonus?

Whether Jumpstart is working isn’t known just yet. People must opt in first. But some employers are quite excited about it. Monarch Casino Resort Spa tossed in an extra $1,400 of its own incentive in order to tout a “$3,000 bonus + a new FT job with benefits” push to hire 300 more workers in Black Hawk. 

The catch? The bonus payments are made only after someone has worked full time for three months. Payments are added to paychecks after 90, 120 and 180 days, said Erica Ferris, Monarch Casino Resort Spa marketing director. And, she added, “all positions are eligible except for a small handful of director-level positions.”

The resort needs additional hospitality workers for table games, four new restaurants, Spa Monarch and recently opened floors of the hotel. >> DETAILS

Customers inside the Monarch Casino on Wednesday June 17, 2020, in Black Hawk, CO. (Hugh Carey, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Last call: Small business loans, restaurant grants

More than 120,000 restaurants nationwide have applied for about $15 billion in grants through the SBA’s Restaurant Revitalization Program, which is being funded through the federal COVID-19 relief package. 

That means there’s still money left in the $28.6 billion program. Applications are still open through 6 p.m. on Monday (May 24). >> sba.gov/restaurants

→ May 31 is the last day to apply for a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program business loan. Even though the program ran out of funding on May 4, loans were still available from some local Community Development Financial Institutions. One local CDFI, First Southwest Bank in Alamosa, said it stopped on Friday after receiving 200 more applications in the past two weeks! >> CDFI lenders

OTHER BITS

NEW UNEMPLOYMENT FRAUD:  Phil Spesshardt, acting director of the state’s Unemployment Insurance Division, received not one but two text messages during Friday’s press call phishing for unemployment information. He warns folks to disregard unwanted texts, emails or even phone calls. The official CDLE emails come from cdle_ui@state.co.us. Check the CDLE daily dashboard for scam updates. 

KID TAX CREDITS: If you have children under age 18 and are eligible for the new $3,000 child tax credit that Sen. Michael Bennet pushed forward in the last relief package, payments start July 15, reports CNBC.


As jobs return and businesses reopen, this has me thinking that “What’s Working” needs to change, too, so I can spend more time diving deeper into other business topics affecting our community. There are still more than 160,984 people on unemployment in Colorado and we won’t ignore that at The Colorado Sun. But this column will likely be changing in upcoming weeks or disappearing. Thoughts? Until next time! ~ tamara 


What’s Working is a Colorado Sun column for readers navigating pandemic employment. Read the archive and don’t miss the next one. Get this free newsletter delivered to your inbox by signing up at coloradosun.com/getww.

MORE: Read stories on Colorado jobs and unemployment


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