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Economy

What’s Working: Coloradans talk about worker shortages and livable wages

This week’s column explores what readers think about the current job and unemployment environment. See results of our poll in charts!

  • Credibility:

There’s no majority of folks who say there is — or isn’t — a labor shortage in Colorado, at least according to the What’s Working unscientific reader poll. Here are the results to the question “Is there a labor shortage?”

  • Yes: 22.1%
  • No: 37.7%
  • It’s complicated: 40.3%

It’s definitely a sore spot for many. Earlier this week, dozens of businesses in Northern Colorado asked Gov. Jared Polis to end the federal unemployment perk of $300 extra per week. Businesses like Columbine Health Systems delayed opening a facility in Windsor because it didn’t have enough nurses, The Coloradoan reported (the Fort Collins newspaper also has a list of all the companies on the petition).

Polis responded with a sentiment similar to his reply in early June to three Colorado Republicans in Congress who asked him the same thing: “it would be dumb for Colorado to simply send this money back to Washington,” but if Congress gave the state more flexibility in how the estimated $600 million to $800 million can be spent, he’s interested.

Economists have also said there isn’t a labor shortage, which happens when wages start rising. Anecdotally, wages are rising for some industries, such as restaurant kitchen staff and employees at traditional retailers. 

The “yes-there-is” reader responses offered their evidence of why there’s got to be a labor shortage:

  • “Limited hours or businesses”
  • “The wait times and (poor) service” at restaurants
  • “Fiscal stimulus has increased the viability of taking a lower salary for no work than higher salary for actually working”
Visitors to Crested Butte, Colorado patronize restaurants and businesses along Elk Avenue with “Help Wanted” signs posted in the windows and doors on June 19,2021. (Dean Krakel, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The solid “no’s” pretty much all mention that the low wages are causing workers to choose higher-paying jobs or use extra unemployment benefits to train and find better jobs.

“After being out of work for over a year, many restaurant workers have re-trained for higher-paying jobs and are not interested in server wages or back-of-house minimum wage jobs. I know people who went back to school while receiving unemployment benefits and are getting graduate degrees,” one reader wrote.

One lady in Trinidad says that her son has applied at 10 places and received only one call back. Any small businesses in Trinidad in need of a teenage employee? Let me know and I’ll put you in touch with his mother.

About 40.3% of readers said, “It’s complicated,” with thoughtful reasons why. 

There are mentions of child care costs, which can be a huge chunk of one’s paycheck, so is it worth it for a parent to work? And there are plenty that blame the rising cost of housing, which is not matching up with low wages.

“Raise pay to where it’s a living wage where you don’t have to live in a car and workers will be aplenty.”

“ZERO rentals making for a huge shortage of people willing to work for $15-18/hr.”

Some job listings are inflexible or demand too much and pay too little. “I’d be GREAT at certain research-support positions but employers dismiss me because I don’t have experience with one or two specific things,” said one guy. 

Another reader mused that it just takes a long time to rehire, “so this is partly temporary. Businesses also found they can operate with fewer workers, and aren’t re-hiring at 100%.”

While another reader added that “way more people than you’d think don’t know how to apply for jobs, or don’t want to use computers to do it.”

And there’s some forecasting about what’s ahead: “And there are changes in employers — stores with shorter hours or (they) don’t need as many workers.” 

And at least one person mentioned what I’ve pointed out before regarding labor shortages for some industries: “There is now and was one WELL before the pandemic.”

The livable wage question

So, how much exactly does one need to live in Colorado? The most popular response from What’s Working readers is $20 an hour. That hourly rate came from folks from Denver and Longmont to Grand Lake, Hesperus and Salida. 

Livable wages — all write-ins, by the way — came in anywhere from $12 to $43 and change an hour. At $12, that’s below the state’s $12.32 minimum wage, while $43 is roughly $90,000 a year.  

Location seems like it would be critical to balance pay expectations and housing costs and other basic needs. But even in cities like Boulder, the expected livable wage is all over the place. Responses from Boulder put the living wage anywhere from $17 to $38.46 an hour. 

“(Two-thirds) of the stores hired full time staff at minimum wage, and paid shift managers only cents to a dollar more.  No one could live on the money and COVID woke us all up to new opportunities,” said one person who worked at a mall in Boulder and put the livable wage at $17.42 an hour. “Everyone I know has retired, financed to stay home and save on childcare, or (found) a new source of income.” 

While someone on the higher end for Boulder said that to make wages livable, they must include enough for rent, commuting costs, kids, pets and student loan payments.

For your visual needs, I’ve put the survey in better context with other parts of life. Here are the average livable wages by city or region, plus for added comparison, the county’s median household income from 2019 U.S. Census data as well as average rents by city, where available, as tracked by Rentcafe, as of June 2021.

There are no defining answers in the column this week but sharing feedback from readers may get others thinking about what are we going to do about the cost of housing, our reliance on lower-paid service jobs and the potential for inflation. 

I’ll leave you with a few more comments from the survey:

People are (and should be) unwilling to work for poverty wages that are offered right now (and have been in the past). Businesses and corporations and employers, generally, should take note. People should be able to work and live without fear of whether they’ll make rent or other needs….and not just BASIC needs. 

Even with a starting wage of $15 an hour, and full benefits if an employee works 4 hours a day, we aren’t getting applicants for these jobs.  When we do, many don’t show up for the interview.  Go look at any school district’s jobs boards.  Keeping schools going right now is tough.

Meanwhile, it seems like there’s a labor glut in entry-level white collar jobs, or at least a lack of new positions offered (especially. with livable wages). What impact will this have on the college graduates of the surrounding few years (2019, 2020, 2021, 2022, etc.) in their potential career paths?


We’ll get back to more regular work and unemployment news next time. Have a good weekend everyone! ~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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