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Economy

What’s Working: The Colorado disconnect continues between employers and the unemployed

Plus: Amazon’s Thornton warehouse is building its own job-training career program, unemployment appeals and small business updates.

Stephen Rossi, an Amazon employee in Thornton, packs products into yellow pods on Sept. 15, 2021 as the company's orange robots bring in pods right up to his work station. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

The job stories continue to roll in about whether there is a labor shortage.  

Hearing from multiple sides, I continue to see a large disconnect in the jobs offered, the required skills and the people available to fill those spots and the work they can offer. 

Lisa Kunze, who has a master’s in education, wrote in to say that as an older worker who lost her job in the pandemic and “settled” for seasonal tourism and part-time work, she started her hunt in earnest again this summer. 

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“One interviewer missed their own deadlines throughout the six-week process and has yet to call me back after three interviews and a promise of ‘We’ll let you know either way’ by Friday, which was two months ago,” she said. “Another only kept me hanging a week after promising not to. The rest have either not responded to my serious applications or declined appropriately by email, all giving no details only saying another candidate was chosen.  …  The unsaid, because it is illegal but nonetheless a reality:  I am ‘overqualified’ and ‘old’ and in the ‘OK, boomer’ category.”

The Empire resident is looking forward to colder weather though because a ski area just called her to offer her full-time hours, she said. “Let it SNOW!”

An owner of a Denver-area bakery said she can’t find any adults “with a good work ethic to save my soul,” even at $18 an hour. 

Etienne Hardré, who operates Locals Barbershop & Salon in Colorado Springs, said he has 15 chairs but only four people cutting hair. They’ve had to close three days a week because of the lack of staff. Back in the day, an opening for an unskilled front-desk job used to get 100 applicants in 24 hours, he said. “That position (now) receives one application every couple of weeks.” 

And Nicole E. from Golden wrote that she’s applied for 500 jobs on Indeed “and most don’t even answer. … I’ve been told I’m under qualified and overqualified. Before the pandemic I had been at my job for six years. I have never been unemployed or collected unemployment until this pandemic. I don’t feel there are good paying jobs and with a lack of people responding back to resumes shows me (employers) are not really hiring.”

Something is not working here. 

According to the latest unemployment report, a week after federal unemployment benefits ended in Colorado, there were 31,737 people collecting unemployment benefits. Two weeks after, during the week ending Sept. 18, the number of Coloradans filing for jobless aid for the first time increased by 50% to 2,727 people.

Data can provide insight into a lot of things — including the fact that Colorado already had a tight labor market and low unemployment rate before the pandemic. But it can’t tell us everything. 

The larger story I’ve been working on about the state’s current employment situation will be published (hopefully) next week, so check back at ColoradoSun.com. Thanks to all who shared their real-life labor stories. You can still do so right here: cosun.co/job-stories.

Even Amazon hurts

Think what you may about Amazon and its impact on local retailers and small businesses, but the company employs a lot of people in Colorado. It claims to have more than 16,000 workers and it’s still hiring. But it is having a hard time finding enough workers. It needs 4,900 more people right now in Colorado. Nearly half of those openings are in Colorado Springs, where this summer it opened its largest warehouse in the state.

While reports of tough working conditions continue to plague the company — California just passed a law aimed at Amazon’s reputation for quotas and now bans the “use of algorithms that track rests and bathroom breaks,” NPR reported — the company looks to its local staff to figure out how to resolve such problems. They include complaints from employees about the difficulty of earning promotions,  so the Thornton facility decided to start its own pilot two months ago to address the issue. 

Joseph Dudek, general manager of Amazon’s robotic fulfillment warehouse in Thornton added a career program for local workers who want to move to a new tier of jobs, including manager positions. The facility held a career day on Sept. 15, 2021 for associates interested in learning more about other careers at Amazon. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

“We heard feedback from our associates of ‘Hey, I applied for this job and I don’t know what to do next,” said Joe Dudek, general manager for the Thornton facility. “After hearing this a few times, we said, ‘Why don’t we fix this?’ So we put a proposal together, internal to our building here, and decided to put resources toward fixing this problem for our associates.”

Marina Murphy, who has a degree in microbiology but left the health care field during the pandemic to become an Amazon operations manager, was tapped to head up the career program because she’d already been guiding her staff through Amazon’s maze of jobs. 

“They just don’t know where to start,” Murphy said. “Having access but not knowing the language within Amazon and what exactly recruiters are looking for, it’s mixed messages. Not every department works the same way so I help bridge the gap and let them know like, ‘Hey, this is the path we need to take to get you to the next level.’”

Marina Murphy oversees the new career pilot program at Amazon’s robotic fulfillment warehouse in Thornton. She helps guide employees to other options at Amazon and how to find open positions, get a recruiter’s attention, and figure out the path to get promoted. The facility held a career day on Sept. 15, 2021 for associates interested in learning more about other careers at Amazon. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

So far, 118 associates are in the program, hoping to get promoted or move to a management position. She also keeps track of corporate, technology and other nonwarehouse roles. About 40% of the company’s Colorado workforce don’t work in the fulfillment centers.

“Word of mouth from associates has been the biggest success,” Murphy said. “Out of those 118 people, we’ve been able to promote 18 of them.” 

The other 100 are still working their way through the program, Dudek said.

Of course, with a bachelor’s degree, it’s easier to move to a rank with better pay, she added. And she pointed to another new employee perk: Starting in January, Amazon will cover college tuition for employees to get a bachelor’s degree or even a GED diploma. There’s no requirement to return to the company after earning a degree. 

“People have this idea that this is just a warehouse and we’re all warehouse workers. There is a misconception,” Murphy said. “But it’s really a stepping stone to something greater. The pandemic affected people pretty badly. There’s people in here, a small population, who are CEOs who lost their jobs and their companies. There are smart people. And there are individuals we want to help out as well who don’t have that background.” 

→ Also hiring: Pepsi Beverages North America. The company has a new 283,500-square-foot warehouse with 500 employees in Adams County. It had 50 new jobs, which include perks like access to a physical therapist, an on-site health clinic and health care and retirement benefits. Jobs start at $19.35 an hour for a merchandiser and $21.80 in the warehouse, according to the company. >> JOBS 

The fussy unemployment system

After last week’s shock for more than 24,000 people who learned they were overpaid federal unemployment benefits and are now on the hook to repay the money, the situation appears to have died down a bit. 

Wait times for the state’s unemployment call center were down to 1 minute on Wednesday and 12 seconds on Thursday, according to Colorado Department of Labor and Employment’s Daily Dashboard, which is likely to turn into a weekly update, CDLE staff said last week.

Average time spent waiting to get a state unemployment customer service agent on the phone dwindled to 12 seconds on Thursday, Sept. 23, 2021. That’s a vast improvement from the prior week, when some days had some folks waiting more than 2 hours on hold. (Screenshot)

The overpayments mostly affected Pandemic Unemployment Assistance users, or gig workers and the self employed. Newer federal funding required CDLE to collect more tax and income information from PUA users, even if they had been collecting benefits for months. But the confusing process resulted in people uploading the wrong forms — or not at all — and being told they must pay or appeal.

Jon Socha, a PUA claimant in the Denver metro area, finally got through to a helpful agent, who helped him figure out that CDLE needed his 2019 tax returns, which were accepted late by the IRS. 

If they had only told him that in the first place, Socha said. Instead, the CDLE messages — “7 issuances and determinations, and two threatening letters,” he said in an email. “Nobody knew what CDLE was requesting!”

After calling the appeals number (303-318-9299), Socha said he was told that the appeals division wants people to upload the right documents to their account “so we don’t have to move forward with the appeal,” Socha said. He did and now he’s crossing his fingers.

→ SOMEONE WHO KNOWS: Erin Joy Swank, a moderator of a private Facebook page where unemployed Coloradans help one another, adds her own tips on navigating the overpayment: Fill out the 90-day questionnaire! >> READ 

Small business updates

The Paycheck Protection Program is done, but small businesses are still getting the loans forgiven. According to the Small Business Administration, nearly 60% of the 11.5 million PPP loans made have applied for forgiveness. That total amounts to $550 billion.

But there’s also this: The SBA on Friday said 1 million applications asking for forgiveness of $17 billion in loans have been submitted through its direct forgiveness portal, which opened Aug. 4. The portal was among a number of things the SBA did to streamline the forgiveness process for small companies borrowing less than $150,000. 

→The PPP forgiveness portal: directforgiveness.sba.gov

→ ICYMI: 12 charts that tell you everything you need to know about Colorado’s Paycheck Protection loans

As far as other financial help for businesses from the federal government goes, the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant, also run by the SBA, has awarded $10 billion to 12,000 venues that faced financial difficulties during the pandemic. The SBA said Friday it began inviting eligible applicants to get a supplemental award. 

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The additional grant is limited to 50% of the venue’s original grant. 

as of Sept. 20, $172.7 million has been awarded to 267 Colorado venues as part of the program.

→ MORE HELP: The SBA has a searchable database by location of local financial lenders and other small business resources at sba.gov/local-assistance

→ WHO’S HERE? Metro Denver Economic Development Corporation launched a new marketing campaign called “The Elevation Effect.” Besides touting the local economy and educated workforce, the site provides lists of what companies that may come in handy if you’re looking for a new employer. >> LINK  


Hang in there everyone and catch you all 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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