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Economy

What’s Working: As Colorado’s labor shortage blame game continues, most unemployed workers are actually back at work

Plus: A busy week at the unemployment office despite federal benefits expiring, who’s hiring and is Amazon really offering to pay for college?

  • Credibility:

If you look at job listings in Colorado, there’s more than 100,000 postings just on the state’s own job board. And as more than 100,000 people who were eligible for unemployment last week but are not this week, they’re looking for work. 

But I continue to receive mixed messages in my inbox that point to and against a labor shortage. I hear from the unemployed who are getting ghosted by employers. I hear from people having a hard time hiring and getting ghosted by potential employees. I hear from lots of customers who see the labor shortage play out first hand.

I have been trying to get emissions testing done on two vehicles since Aug. 1. Air Care Colorado’s site in Greeley is so short of technicians they were closed the first time I went. They had a person out at the gate turning cars away with the excuse they could not find enough help to work that day. The next two times I went I waited in line over 90 minutes before being told that I was still too far back in the line to get in before closing time. ~ Tim J.

I have never been so frustrated looking for work! I have a bachelor’s degree and have applied for jobs in my field as well as retail just to get working again. Employers don’t keep the job boards up to date. The jobs are filled when you apply.  Employers don’t respond when cover letters and resumes are submitted, even when I follow up. ~ Anonymous

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

There were more, and I could hear the frustration in their messages and see why they feel the way they do.

Yes, there are some people who remained on unemployment benefits as long as they could because, well, they could. And there are some employers who cannot find the workers they need because they don’t pay enough for the work involved. And some of these situations were happening well before the pandemic. Most personal stories are complex. In other words, it’s not as simple as saying the sky is above us, the ground below.

So, let me also lay down some facts: Not every industry has a plethora of job openings, and most Coloradans who lost a job in the pandemic are back at work. 

Between Jan. 2009 and this month, the number of Coloradans receiving an unemployment check peaked in July 2020 with 418,809 people. By August, that number dropped more than half. An important color to note is the blue line. That represents Coloradans eligible for unemployment pay from the state — pandemic or no pandemic. That number has now fallen below where it was during the Great Recession. (Colorado Department of Labor and Employment)
  • At the peak of pandemic benefits in July 2020, 418,809 Coloradans were collecting unemployment. By August 2021 — even though pandemic benefits were still available — that number had dropped nearly 60% to 178,268. This number includes folks who received a payment but may have returned to work the same month. It tells us that most people who were unemployed have since gone back to work or left the workforce.
  • The wages report (called the Quarterly Census of Employment and Wages) looks at jobs lost and gained each month. In July, not all industries were growing. In July, the trade, transportation and utility sector lost 1,600 jobs. And a later revision had the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment concluding that number was underestimated and it was down an additional 1,400 jobs.
  • The Department of Labor created a job-refusal form earlier this year for employers to tip off the agency about workers who didn’t show up for interviews or declined a job. As of mid-August, it was still finding that only 14% to 16% of complaints were legit and those workers lost benefits. That’s the same rate as earlier this year.
  • There are more companies now registered with the secretary of state in good standing and in a not-so-good status (i.e.: they’re delinquent) than before the pandemic.
  • Most of the state’s workforce is back at work. About 80% of the 362,200 jobs lost at the start of the pandemic have returned. Private businesses added 293,300 payroll jobs between May 2020 and July. That recovery rate is ahead of the national rate of 77% and lands Colorado at the 16th fastest in the nation.

Thanks to all the readers who share their personal stories. But why don’t employers respond to all job applicants? Why aren’t job seekers showing up for interviews or work? Are you in one of these positions? Let me tag along on this journey with you to help me report what is happening in our community. Let me interview you.

Help us track your story by filling out the form linked above.

Notes from the the labor department

Pandemic benefits may be over, but it is far from over at the Department of Labor. It was pretty ugly this past week if you had an unemployment question. Calling the customer service line resulted in a couple hours wait on some days, though it was down to a 35-minute wait on Thursday.

Days after pandemic unemployment ended in Colorado on Sept. 4, 2021, the unemployed waited for more than two hours to talk to an unemployment customer service agent. A top reason for calls? Confusion about the end of benefits, according to the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. (Screenshot)

As previously noted for weeks and months, last Saturday, Sept. 4, was the last day the federal government would pay pandemic unemployment benefits. But a top reason people were calling in? Confusion about the end of benefits.

And that’s not a surprise, said Phil Spesshardt, director of the division of unemployment insurance. 

“Our experience after the Great Recession showed us that the top issue facing the program was claimant confusion around remaining benefits showing on their claim,” he said in an email. 

A remaining balance showed how much a person was eligible for until the program’s end — and that’s a message the department says it was sending claimants “many times” before Sept. 4. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Claimants “seem to also misunderstand how regular state (unemployment) works. In other words, you must qualify monetarily during the base period to be eligible for regular UI rather than simply applying when federal benefits expire,” Spesshardt added.

Remember, folks, regular unemployment is available only to people who worked for an employer that paid for unemployment insurance. 

And then there’s this: Now that we’re back to the pre-pandemic normal for who qualifies to receive unemployment benefits, if you no longer meet weekly eligibility requirements, you’re not going to get paid.

“Payments are now being held for regular UI claims if claimants are reporting on their weekly certifications that they are not meeting eligibility requirements because they are not available for or seeking new work due to the pandemic,” he said. “These are no longer permissible exceptions and will result in issues on claims that hold payment.”

Back to the grind

While the state’s labor department does handle unemployment, it also enforces workplace rules and laws, and works with employers and employees to find suitable jobs or training. Hence, CDLE is always pushing job openings: There were 128,016 openings on the state’s official job board Friday. Some other CDLE efforts of note:

  • Apprenticeships: If you know of a good program, mentor or employer, CDLE wants to know. Fill out this form by Sept. 26: >> SUBMIT
  • Attention workers age 50 and older: Along with the AARP Foundation, state workforce centers are hosting “Back to Work 50+” sessions this month to provide tools and new skills training for older adults looking for a job or returning to work. >> REGISTER

Will Amazon really pay for college?

It sure sounds like this is the case based on this week’s Amazon news release, “Amazon to pay full college tuition for its front-line employees as part of $1.2 billion investment.”

But does that mean Amazon will pay the full ride to a school like the University of Denver, which charges about $55,000 a year in tuition and fees?

Amazon won’t say just yet. The free tuition doesn’t start till January and an announcement will be made about which Colorado schools are participating, spokeswoman Nikki Wheeler said. 

Amazon fulfillment associates Viri Barrera, left, gives Thornton Mayor Heidi Williams a lesson in packing merchandise from a work station at the fulfillment center on August 29, 2019 in Thornton, Colorado. (Photo By Kathryn Scott)

Amazonians — including those working in warehouses where pay starts at $15 an hour — already have access to job-training programs, including in on-site classrooms. The company provides apprenticeships and training for workers interested in becoming software engineers.

What’s new is its Career Choice program, which already has “pre-approved third-party educators to deliver curriculum to our employees,” is expanding. There are 100 education partners and soon, there will be more, including schools offering bachelor’s degrees. 

This is also not just college tuition — paid in advance, by the way — but also funding to help workers get their high school diploma, GED and English as a second language proficiency certification. As long as the student is employed by Amazon, the education funding is available.

“Amazon provides flexible work schedules so our employees can pursue their education while maintaining their job,” Wheeler said. “We work with education partners who understand adult learning and its unique challenges. We will continue to select partners who are committed to student success and providing flexible schedules to students so that they can accommodate school and their jobs.”

And no, she added, a worker who takes advantage of free tuition isn’t required to return to Amazon and work. “In fact, through our Career Choice program we’ve helped people get the education necessary to pursue roles outside of Amazon,” she said.

Amazon is hosting its virtual career day on Sept. 15 for anyone curious about what it’s like to work at the company. Later that day in Colorado, the company will have its own career day for existing workers at DEN3, the company’s facility in Thornton. >> REGISTER

→ Amazon pros and cons? There are a lot of them, and we’ll try to explore more in a future column (email me if you have your own Amazon tale). But at least one state is tackling the cons of working for Amazon. California’s State Senate approved a bill to limit production quotas for warehouse workers, The New York Times reports. >> STORY 

Jobs and other business bits

→ INCOMING: Tipico Sportsbook, the New Jersey sports betting company, is moving its technology hub to Denver. And it’s already hiring. The company promises to bring 441 jobs to town over the next eight years, at an average salary of $96,315. If it meets that goal, the company is eligible for $7.5 million in a job-growth tax credit. For those who missed it, online sports betting became legal in Colorado on May 1, 2020, and generated $8 million in tax revenue in its first year, according to the Colorado Office of Economic Development and International Trade. >> JOBS

→ DRIVERS WANTED: The state Department of Transportation needs drivers so badly, it’s hosting multiple job fairs all over the state. Got a commercial driver’s license? Check out the openings and in-person hiring events. >> DETAILS

→ SBA LOANS AVAILABLE: The federal Economic Injury Disaster Loan (EIDL) program has been retooled with loans of up to $2 million available. These offer 24 months of deferment and allow borrowers to pay down higher-interest business debt. Unlike the Paycheck Protection Program loans though, EIDLs must be paid back. >> DETAILS (in 17 languages)


Did you know that The Colorado Sun turned 3 on Friday? If you just happened upon this weekly column randomly, it’s only because of the mission of the Sun that it continues. We aim to keep Coloradans informed and thanks to our members, we’re able to build and grow our audience. Join as a member if you can and spread the word: coloradosun.com/join. And for those who want to know more, here’s our annual report. Until next week! ~ 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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