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Economy

What’s Working: When a 6% unemployment rate feels like 2.5% — is there a labor shortage in Colorado?

Plus: Job perks and flexible schedules point to employers doing more to attract workers; the PUA reset; housing crises on Western Slope; and Colorado Jumpstart pays $4.1 million to the newly employed

Heavy equiptment sits on site of new development taking shape along the Colorado River in Grand Junction, Colo. (Photo by William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
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Over on the Western Slope, Curtis Englehart, director of the Mesa County Workforce Center, said the area’s high unemployment rate improved to 6% in May, from 7.9% in January. 

That’s still pretty high, but he said it sure doesn’t feel like the county is in a state of high unemployment, especially if you’re in the business of helping businesses fill open positions, which is what the workforce center does.

“It really feels like it did back in 2019, when our unemployment rate hit 2.5%,” Englehart said. “It seems like there are so many employers who are screaming for employees, and it’s across all industries.”

Colorado, which had an unemployment rate of 6.2% in May, appears to be back to the same old pre-pandemic struggle, with employers having a tough time finding enough help. In some cases, though, it’s probably more about finding enough qualified workers — or at least a large selection of qualified applicants — to choose from. The imbalance shows up in the number of job openings vs. the number of people still on unemployment:

  • 108,786 → Open jobs on ConnectingColorado.com, the state’s job board, as of July 9
  • 140,317 → Coloradans on continued unemployment as of June 26
  • ??? → Unknown number of open jobs not on state’s site AND number of Coloradans who stopped looking for a job or are underemployed

Online lender marketplace LendingTree recently looked at hiring needs nationwide and put together a Top 10 list of states in most need of workers. Colorado landed in fifth place, with 42% of businesses indicating that the need to hire was the top priority in the next six months.

“The largest impediment to owners reopening continues to be finding employees,” said Tony Gagliardi, state director of the small business organization NFIB. “Over 46% of members responding report continued difficulties finding employees.”

But unemployed Boulder resident Jon Socha feels differently. He has a clinical doctorate in acupuncture and wrote in to say he doesn’t think there’s a labor shortage at all. There just aren’t enough well-paying jobs available. 

“I think that most of the population doesn’t want to work jobs for poverty wages,” he wrote. “High paid salary posts are highly competitive and quite cutthroat.”

He used to make “a little above six figures” before the pandemic, and now makes much less on unemployment. He said he occasionally spots some higher-paying jobs he’s interested in but he’s getting rejected or passed over — even at USAjobs.gov, which connects workers to government positions.

“Rarely are there good full-time jobs available in my field,” said Socha, who has seen potential jobs paying in the $80,000 to $150,000 range. He’s hoping to find a decent job “on staff, full salary at a good health clinic/system.”

Unemployment payments in Colorado

There’s no escaping the critics who blame the federal pandemic unemployment bonus of $300 per week as leading to people not going back to work — even celebrity chef Guy Fieri remarked on it during a podcast with Kara Swisher of The New York Times. He responded to a question about why people aren’t returning to work with, “Why would you go and eat broccoli if you just got to eat Doritos?”

Sure, adding in the $300 per week bonus makes unemployment a better deal than working some low-paying jobs. But for those who made more than $49,000 a year, it isn’t true.

Regular unemployment pays 55% of what one used to make, so the $300 bonus may help some folks make more on unemployment but not all. 

Here’s how much unemployment pays in Colorado:

  • $25 to $636Minimum and maximum weekly benefit paid to unemployed Coloradans
  • $325 to $936 — Same as above plus the $300 federal pandemic bonus
  • $8.13 or $23.40 — Pandemic unemployment benefits by the hour
  • $16,900 to $48,672 — Pandemic unemployment benefits if paid for one year

Let’s take, for example, recent stories about rising gas prices in Colorado that are being blamed on labor shortages caused by the federal bonus. While labor shortages do exist in the trucking industry, this was an issue before the pandemic. And according to ZipRecruiter.com, Colorado tanker drivers’ average wage was at $1,076 per week or $26 an hour, so that’s higher than the max benefit on unemployment.

It really depends on the industry and wages. Of course, people can still choose to remain unemployed and earn less. But if they don’t show up for job interviews or respond to hiring employers, employers can report the job refusal and the applicant could lose their unemployment benefits.

Labor shortage means perks

Englehart, with Mesa County, said that other pandemic factors impacting the scarcity of workers in his region include students who left the area during the pandemic and international workers who haven’t returned. But here’s another trend: remote work options. 

“I think that a lot of the workforce has grown comfortable with this work-from-home type model,” he said. “You have a lot more options at your fingertips than ever before because what the pandemic told us is that you can get your job done whether it’s in a physical office or from the comfort of your own home.”

Bloomberg News reports that some wages are rising, though they’ve barely budged from a year ago, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rising wages often point to a labor shortage as employers compete to attract workers, but economists don’t want to say that just yet. Anecdotally, Englehart said he’s seeing local employers add more flexible schedules and other perks to attract workers.

But, of course, there are still jobs that must be done in person. Even those are seeing some changes to basic benefits, he said.

“Even in the more entry-level type positions, some type of paid vacation package, health insurance package, the company culture that includes flexibility — those things are really big right now and are such a focus for these job seekers who are starting to look to get back to work,” Englehart said. 

On Friday, nearly 1,100 jobs based in Mesa County were posted on the state’s job board at ConnectingColorado.com. A full-time concrete form setter at Myers & Sons Construction starts at $26 an hour and advertised “FRINGE BENEFITS – including Health Insurance, Dental, Retirement Plans, etc.” 

A beauty advisor for the Sephora counter at the Kohl’s in Grand Junction starts at $15.60 an hour and includes vacation, parental leave and health insurance. A coffee attendant for the Pilot Flying J pays about minimum wage, but offers benefits like free meals, tuition assistance and a $10 per week health plan. A minimum-wage job helping kitchen staff in the Cappella memory care facility qualifies for a $250 sign-on bonus, medical insurance, tuition reimbursement, shift meal and “no late nights!”

There are some jobs in our society that probably can’t go above $24 an hour — which is the maximum someone in Colorado can currently receive on unemployment, thanks to the federal bonus. And as long as there are customers needing clean hotel rooms, attentive wait staff and other services that tend to be physically intense and lower paid, the jobs will exist, though maybe with improved benefits.

“People are itching to go on some type of vacation … so the demand is huge right now in the hospitality industry,” Englehart said. “Workers are not there to fill that demand so you have general managers who are stepping up and cleaning hotel rooms. You have restaurants around here and Mesa County that are closing a day a week because they don’t have the staff to stay open as they were able to pre-pandemic. I think a lot of those factors are starting to make employers think about what they can do to entice job seekers back to their jobs.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Related: One-third of former hospitality workers aren’t even considering going back to old jobs because of low pay, benefits. But 50% are — even with no changes. >> BusinessInsider

Denver started paying city contractors $15 per hour on July 1. Those who are underpaid can file a complaint with the city auditor. >> DETAILS

Worker housing shortage

While checking in with Englehart in Mesa County, I also reached out to Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. She’s the person who hears directly from business members about how hard it’s been to find enough workers.

She also struggles with incoming companies that are expanding or moving to the area but not finding enough housing for workers. A recent example is CoorsTek, which decided to expand in Grand Junction in 2019. A Daily Sentinel article at the time said CoorsTek would relocate about 20 jobs from its Golden headquarters to Grand Junction.

“I have companies that are trying to bring in their workforce and they can’t,” she said. “First of all, there’s no place to put them. 

“And now it’s like they can’t find housing. They’re being put up in hotels while we try to find something for them. It’s all related: The workforce, workforce attraction, the housing. … I regularly poll my members and ask them what was keeping them up at night. Obviously, labor has been an issue for a while and skilled labor in particular, but now housing is right behind it.”

Some of the Railyard at Rimrock, a seven-building complex with about 200 units in Grand Junction, is still under construction as of July 8, 2021. But tenants have already moved into available spaces and there is a waiting list, according to Diane Schwenke, president of the Grand Junction Area Chamber of Commerce. “It’s definitely a housing crisis,” she said. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

There is a new rental development in town, The Railyard at Rimrock, a seven-building complex with 200 units. Three are already open and occupied. Two more are fully leased but not yet open. The remaining two are still under construction and have not started pre-leasing yet — but there is already a waiting list, according to property manager Gretchen Moss. Studios start at $1,025 per month and three bedrooms at $1,700. 

“That’s the first big multifamily housing project we’ve had in quite some time. And they’re full. They aren’t even done with their sixth and seventh building and they’re full and have a waiting list,” Schwenke said. “It’s definitely a housing crisis that we’re looking at.”

Housing continues to be an issue statewide and The Colorado Sun has reported on a lot of it (here’s our archive of housing stories). 

We’re still following the state’s rental assistance programs so if you have a story to share about applying for help through the Emergency Rental Assistance Program or need help covering a monthly mortgage, share your story with us: tamara@coloradosun.com

Who reads What’s Working?

One more weekend to fill out the What’s Working survey for a chance to win a $100 Visa gift card. More importantly, your input will help me better understand who reads it and what stories I should be pursuing. Here’s what the results looks like so far:

Coloradans who read What’s Working find jobs — at least that’s how we’re translating this user survey on readers of this column, as of July 8, 2021.

More people are working now than when they first started reading The Colorado Sun’s weekly job column during the pandemic. But I also see that not many entry-level workers have taken the survey. Those who could benefit most from the column may not even know it exists so please share this with folks you know.

And there are a lot of individual comments (yes — you can leave a comment in the survey) from people who like the job tips, potential opportunities and explanations about what’s going on behind the scenes in the job market. Thanks, too, for the ideas about what stories I should be pursuing.

The last chance to take the survey and enter the $100 drawing is Sunday night. Thanks ahead of time for helping me out.

Unemployment beat: The PUA reset

The wait to get through to the help line went way up this past week. On Thursday, there was a 63-minute wait to get through, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s dashboard. On Friday, it was 54 minutes.

That compares to a 6-minute wait a week earlier.

What gives? 

It’s the PUA reset, confirmed CDLE officials. As in the past, the first day of every quarter requires everyone on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to reapply for regular state benefits. If deemed ineligible, they go back to PUA.

If you’re impacted, you probably glossed over this message in your account: 

The first of every quarter requires unemployed Coloradans on Pandemic Unemployment Assistance to reapply for standard benefits in case they are eligible. If you didn’t do that on July 1, your benefits won’t be paid. (Screenshot)

The above image was shared by Jon Socha, who is mentioned above, because he was having trouble getting through to the unemployment office’s customer service line.

Turns out, he didn’t need to schedule a call. He just needed to reapply for PUA. More details about that are on CDLE’s FAQ page under “What happens during each quarter change?” 

Because PUA benefits are likely to end Sept. 4, this will be the last time users will need to do this.

But there’s more, adds Jessica Hudgins Smith, the Division of Unemployment Insurance press secretary. Those on extended regular benefits — i.e. Pandemic Emergency Unemployment Compensation — may also need to reapply.

“All PEUC claimants whose claims have expired or passed their Benefit Year End date must also reapply at each quarter change. Claimants do not need to call the center to reapply. All they need to do is click the ‘Apply for Standard UI benefits’ button in the navigation menu of MyUI+. We communicated this to claimants this quarter and each quarter via our weekly email,” she said in an email.

Jumpstart pays $4.1 million

As 26 other states opted to end federal unemployment benefits early (see more below), Colorado stuck with the extra assistance available in extended benefits plus an extra $300 a week. 

But the state also launched its own incentive called Colorado Jumpstart, promising to pay an extra $1,200 to $1,600 to anyone on unemployment who started work again by June 26.

Well, the early numbers are in. While 18,606 Coloradans opted in by deadline, approximately 5.657 started working again in May or June. As of July 8, the state paid those first batch of folks $4.15 million for the first four weeks of eligibility. The second payment will take place later this year after the next four weeks are completed. 

The Colorado Jumpstart program has begun paying people who found new jobs by June 26 an extra $1,200 to $1,600, depending on when they opted into the incentive program and how long they’ve worked. More than 5,600 people received a payment. The state used federal COVID relief to pay out $4.1 million as of July 8, 2021. (Screenshot)

More unemployment updates:

→ MORE SLOTS: In case you were wondering why it’s been impossible to schedule a time to have someone from unemployment call you in recent days, there were no appointments available. But late Friday, Smith said that they opened up more spots. This happens a lot. So try again — and you can schedule it through the virtual agent online.

→ 4 — States now facing lawsuits for ending federal unemployment benefits early. Workers from Maryland, Ohio, Indiana and Texas are seeing success in trying to get benefits reinstated, reports CBS News. Colorado, meanwhile, will pay federal benefits till the Sept. 4 end, but an increased number of people filing for unemployment is being blamed on fraud as workers in 26 states ending benefits early may be trying to get them here instead, as we’ve reported earlier.

Small business and other bits

$1 million to $5 million in grants are still available through the SBA’s Community Navigator Program, which is looking for local organizations that work with “socially and economically disadvantaged” small businesses, as well as those owned by women and veterans. Deadline to submit a proposal is now July 23. >> APPLY

→ Legislation proposed by U.S. Rep. Jason Crow incentivizes new entrepreneurs to support under-resourced communities. Find out more about the Next Generation Entrepreneurship Corps Act from the Congressional committee hearing HERE.

If you’re confused about the Child Tax Credit that is available to families with children under 18, ask the man behind the policy. Sen. Michael Bennet is hosting an hour-long town hall on Monday, July 12, at  5 p.m. He’ll be joined by district superintendents from Jeffco and Cañon City, and John Stanley with the Colorado Taxpayer Advocate Service. Just dial in before 5 p.m. to 833-946-1565.

ColoradoExcluded.com, which tracks how many companies are excluding Coloradans from jobs because of the state’s new law requiring disclosure of how much the job pays, now counts 134 companies and 335 confirmed job listings. >> VIEW


I enjoyed a week off from column writing last week though I did spend some of my time off traveling in Grand Junction, and hence, capturing the insight of locals in the area.

What part of the state should I visit next? Send me a note at tamara@coloradosun.com about what economic activity is happening — or not happening — in your own community.  Thanks for reading the column and don’t forget to take the survey. The winner will be announced in an upcoming column. ~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