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Economy

Where have Colorado’s workers gone? Some say: “We’re still here. Hire us!”

The labor market continues to get even more complex as employers and workers recover from the COVID-19 pandemic. Data shows fewer workers are out there though. So, where did they go?

THORNTON — Ground zero for what’s happening to Colorado’s labor market may as well be right here, in Amazon’s 2.4 million-square-foot warehouse where employees work alongside orange 320-pound robots. 

The mechanical creatures look like massive robotic vacuum cleaners. But instead of lifting dirt, each robot can lift yellow storage pods filled with random products and deliver them on demand to an employee’s work station.

The facility is one of Amazon’s four large warehouses in Colorado, though not the largest. That would be the new one in Colorado Springs, which is 50% larger and planned to hire more than 1,500 employees when it opened in July. But even as robots do some chores, so workers don’t have to roam miles of inventory to find products to fill customer orders, there still aren’t enough Amazon associates. 

There are hundreds of robotic drive units, and tens of thousands of shelving pods holding millions of products in Amazon’s fulfillment center in Thornton. When it opened in June 2018, it employed 1,500 people. (Kathryn Scott, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Amazon said it needs another 1,000 people right now in Thornton, where it already employs 3,000 at starting wages that average $17 an hour. It also is hiring another 2,200 people in Colorado Springs.

“It has been rather difficult to hire,” said Joe Dudek, general manager for Thornton, who’s lost some workers that returned to the pre-pandemic industries they came from. “What we’ve heard is the hospitality industry has opened back up and this was temporary for them.”

Workers have more options than ever 19 months into COVID-19, especially those who are interested in service-industry jobs. Employers have been competing for the same workers all year as businesses reopened and consumers were vaccinated. Supplemental federal unemployment benefits ended in Colorado on Sept. 4, but job openings have continued to outnumber job seekers. And job seekers have been in decline all year as people left unemployment. 

The COVID disruption prompted some workers to reconsider what they want, instead of just what they need, in a job — and demand more. Others dropped out of the workforce, causing the state’s labor force to experience declines in recent months. People left for health reasons, or to take care of their children. Some chose to retire. 

But even as employers wonder what happened to all the applicants, some job seekers are wondering why employers aren’t responding — or hiring? 

Cat McQueen, who has 20 years of higher-education experience, has a theory: Her age. She’s applied for more than 500 jobs and interviewed for a dozen.

“I definitely have marketable skills,” she said. “But when I find I include dates or I am asked what my long-term goals are and I say within the next 10 years I will be retiring, that is where the conversation seems to end.”

Stephen Rossi, an Amazon employee in Thornton, packs products into yellow pods on Sept. 15, brought to his work station by the company’s orange robots. He said he was downsized from the technology industry and took the Amazon job because it came with health insurance. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Of course, hiring struggles existed long before the pandemic. It motivated companies like Amazon to invest in technology and make changes to adjust staffing shortages. McDonald’s acquired an artificial intelligence company to test voice ordering at drive-thrus, so humans can handle other duties. Denver-based Oakwood Homes addressed its industry shortage by starting the Colorado Homebuilding Academy in 2017 to recruit and train students tuition free if they pursue a construction career. 

Smaller businesses are now being forced to make their own changes to operate with fewer staffers.

“For 18 months, I’ve had a cook job opening,” said Terri Dirks, co-owner of The Oberon House, a private assisted living facility in Arvada. “We’ve had very few applicants. We actually have had only two face-to-face interviews.” 

She’s had to adjust. Her dining services manager now prepares multiple meals that are reheated during meal times. 

Care supervisor Maria Szlagi hands out medication to residents of Oberon House, an assisted living facility in Arvada, on Sept. 22. The facility has struggled to hire new staff and caretakers. When interviewing candidates in the past to help care for Oberon’s 49 residents, owner Terri Dirks, not pictured, said “someone would always show up. Now they give fake phone numbers, fake emails. I have a full-time HR person that does nothing but try to get candidates.” (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

She’s also looking for more caregivers, who in her experience have been “90% single mothers” with no college education. That group accounts for one of the larger chunks of the people who’ve dropped out of Colorado’s workforce. They could be staying home to look after their children because of school quarantines or remote learning. But no cooks?

“It’s shocking to me because we were hit hard by the pandemic as everybody else was. But we figured we’d get lots of applicants because the restaurants shut down,” Dirks said. “So where did all the cooks go? Well, I don’t know where they went, but they didn’t come to assisted living.”

A lot of employers are asking similar questions about where key workers have gone. But on the other hand, there’s still a sizable number of people still on unemployment. As of Sept. 11, a week after federal unemployment benefits ended, there were 31,737 Coloradans collecting state unemployment. In 2019, the weekly average was 18,600 people on continued unemployment.

Getting hired is not as easy as you’d think

The unemployed — and some who’ve found a job — experienced a different reality on the job hunt. Most who shared their frustrations in a What’s Working survey asked to remain anonymous and said they don’t believe in the so-called labor shortage. 

They say they’ve applied to numerous jobs with very little response. They also shared reasons why they didn’t take a job — it didn’t pay enough to cover rising housing costs or it was an hour’s drive away. Some complained that employers or job listings ask for too much and seem unwilling to consider training applicants with promise. Fear of catching COVID is still an issue, as is balancing pay against child care costs. 

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  • I truly find these “qualifications,” save for things such as literacy and negative employer feedback, to be nothing more than divisive, classist, unnecessary and … unethical. Truly the most disrespectful things I’ve seen were “unpaid internships,” and … Who — save for the wealthy — can afford to take years off to gain “experience”? Experience happens when you’re working, and if there’s such a hefty requirement, there should be paid training. —  A 2019 college graduate unsuccessful at finding an entry-level role at a tech or marketing startup — or even a local bookstore.
  • School COVID layoff. Due to autoimmune health reasons I can’t return to a face-to-face school position. Most people I know are refusing to return to work, due to concerns for their health and lives. COVID’s still killing. — Teri
  • I have never applied for so many jobs in my entire life and I can’t even get an interview. Now all of the sudden for the holidays they are all calling for temporary seasonal part-time jobs with no benefits. They won’t work with your schedule to work multiple jobs. This is the biggest issue. They want you to be available 24/7 for a part-time, minimum wage job. Are you kidding? — Jennifer, Loveland  
Shawn Breaux, who lost his security consulting business in the pandemic, sleeps in his car in an Arvada parking lot. He’s grateful for the safe parking spot, where he has access to a Porta-Potty and electricity, thanks to the efforts of the Colorado Safe Parking Initiative, which featured Breaux in a video. (Provided by Colorado Safe Parking Initiative)

Shawn Breaux lost his security consulting business during COVID. Trying to find a new job has frustrated him because the pay isn’t enough in a metro area where median rent for a one-bedroom apartment is $1,456. He doesn’t want to accept anything less than $20 an hour. He’s now living in his car in Arvada, trying to save up money to become an armed guard for the state. 

“Any way you slice it, the existing labor shortage is due solely to the employers’ unwillingness to pay adequate wages for the amount of labor involved,” he said in an email.  “Anyone working 40 hours a week should not be (living in) poverty. Period.”

Dirks, with The Oberon House, said assisted living centers have long attracted people who want a rewarding career that helps older adults. She competes by offering a different work environment where workers aren’t judged by apps or algorithms, and says she’s even attracted some ex-Amazon employees. She’s willing to adjust wages for someone with a college degree. People just aren’t applying.

Emily Brainard prepares lunch for residents at the Oberon House in Arvada. The facility, currently housing 49 residents, has struggled to hire new staff and caretakers, including cooks who can make $16 an hour. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

She’s willing to consider raising wages for the right candidate willing to do the work. The Oberon House’s cook job is advertised at $14 to $16 while caregiver jobs pay up to $15. But it could “be upwards of $20 to $25,” depending on the person, plus there’s  “a very robust benefit package,” she said. Most of her staff, she said, are paid roughly $50,000, or near the average pay for recent college graduates nationwide

“I could hire a college-educated person. I could probably figure out a way to pay them,” she said. “But they don’t want to do what I need them to do. I need to give old people showers and wipe their butts. And, you know, no college-educated 22-year-old is going to do that, not for any money in the world.”

Data indicates there aren’t enough workers

Those who follow the labor market are discussing a larger problem now: There may not be enough workers. 

According to economist Tatiana Bailey, there are more job openings in Colorado than the number of people seeking work. Comparing help-wanted postings from research firm Emsi Burning Glass and data on the state’s workforce, there are 0.8 people available per job opening. It’s worse in the larger cities, like Denver, where 0.74 people are available, and in Colorado Springs, where it’s 0.77.

Using data from the Colorado Department of Labor and from private jobs company Emsi Burning Glass, economist Tatiana Bailey, director of the UCCS Economic Forum in the College of Business at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, calculated how many job openings for every unemployed worker. Conclusion: There’s not enough workers in Colorado. (Provided by Tatiana Bailey)

“It is true that the labor participation rate fell during COVID and it’s rebounded a little bit, but not to where it needs to be,” said Bailey, director of UCCS Economic Forum in the College of Business at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs. “And part of the reason it’s such a big problem is that it was low to begin with.”

There are more people age 16 to 64 living in Colorado today than during the Great Recession, but a smaller percent are active in the workforce, according to what is known as the labor force participation rate. This measures how many people are working or looking for work divided by the number of adults of working age.  

And then in August, the labor force participation rate dropped for the fourth straight month, to 63.3%. The decline has just been tenths of a percentage point each month, but that seems like the opposite of what should happen during a recovery. It’s lower than in February 2020, the month before COVID business closures began, when the rate was 68.8%. And it’s much lower than where Colorado was out coming out of the Great Recession, when it hovered around 70% in 2010, and compared to when the housing bubble burst in 2008, when it was around 73%.

Here’s a chart that shows how the labor force rate has changed since 2008, even as the working-age population has grown:

Ryan Gedney, senior economist at the state’s Department of Labor and Employment, said not to look too closely at the month-to-month changes. They often get revised. 

“It could be that the labor force was overestimated for the first part of the year, and maybe that will be revised down and the second half of the year will be revised up,” Gedney said. “I do find it odd that employment’s been basically flat, which runs counter to what we’re seeing from the payroll jobs numbers.”

Gedney said it’s better to look at Colorado’s recovery compared to the nation’s. The state is doing pretty well, he said.  

“The actual rate itself is relatively high — the fourth highest nationally,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a harbinger where we’re seeing a lot of people exit the labor force. …It could be older individuals are like ‘OK, I feel good. I’m just opting out of the workforce.’ … It could just be noise that’s inherent in a survey like this.”

Industries are still recovering and data shows that many sectors of the economy are not only not back to where they were before the pandemic, but they’re not even back to 2019 levels, as seen in the chart below. These are just ongoing issues that are being aggravated by the pandemic.

Bailey said people lack training for the higher-skilled and better paying jobs. More training — especially free options — would help. 

“Is there a labor shortage? You betcha,” Bailey said. “I always try to look at data and say well maybe this,  maybe that. Well, I’ve looked at a lot of data. We absolutely have a labor shortage. And I don’t think it’s transitory. I think this is a structural issue in terms of training people for the jobs of today. It’s a structural issue in terms of straight up demographics and having fewer working-age people. It’s a structural issue because of retirees.”

It comes down to more choices for workers, said Alex Padilla, an economics professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. They’re making choices if they’re unhappy with their work/life balance, their careers or corporate policies

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“There’s also people who went from working remote and now their businesses are telling them, ‘Hey, you have to come back.’ And they’re like, ‘I don’t want to come back (and) wear a mask again. And if you want me to come back, you have to pay me more,’” he said.

The lack of applicants is causing many employers to increase wages and that will have an impact as the new post-pandemic workforce emerges. Colorado’s average earnings grew $1.30 an hour to $33.38 in the first quarter, compared to a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Workers are sitting (out) until their wages increase. And ultimately, we are going to start seeing wages increase, which leads to problems because businesses are still trying to maximize profits,” he said. “It becomes very difficult for businesses to find workers that are willing to take the wages the market dictates. Wages are actually increasing, which leads to inflation.” 

Ghosting goes both ways

As businesses began to reopen in the past year, employers complained to the state labor department that applicants weren’t responding to jobs after applying. Some showed up for the interview, but not for the first day of work. It got so bad, the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment provided a form employers could fill out to complain about individuals. 

An unknown number of job seekers probably did ghost employers only to fulfill the state’s requirement to complete five job searches per week or lose benefits.  But the state’s labor agency said only about 14% to 16% of job-refusal requests submitted have resulted in the loss of benefits.

Some job seekers offered their own explanation for ghosting.

“Once I updated my LinkedIn profile, I got swamped with recruiting calls and direct offers for interviews in June and July,” Trevor Y wrote in an email. “I work (a) a blue-collar/skilled trade with a college bachelor of science in the $45, 000 to $60,000 pay range. I felt compelled to be polite and try to respond to all the offers but it got too overwhelming, especially once I made a decision and signed on somewhere.” 

Rachel L., an employer from Cañon City, wrote in saying when applicants ghost her, it’s hard to figure out when to move on. 

“I don’t know how long I should wait for people to respond until I send them a letter telling them thank you,” she said. “As an employer it is not always easy knowing the best way to do things.” 

Many employers said they just aren’t getting the number of applicants they got for openings before the pandemic — and new applicants didn’t emerge even after federal unemployment benefits ended.

“We have zero applicants,” said Etienne Hardré, who runs Locals Cut barber shop in Colorado Springs. He said the shop has been “turning away 30 to 35 customers a day” because he doesn’t have enough hair cutters. “I don’t even have anybody to ghost.”

Renee Chalfant, who works for a literacy nonprofit that often hires teachers and pays wages well above average, makes it a policy to respond to every applicant. Last spring, 400 people applied for an opening. She read every resume and helped narrow down the candidates. Not all responded back. 

And then she let people know if they didn’t get the job. But that was only if they were qualified. Those “totally out of the ballpark” got a form letter. Most nonprofits don’t have the bandwidth to respond to everyone, she said.

“I have found that (on some local job boards), most postings will say that because of the number of applicants we expect, we will only be responding to the people we wish to interview. I think that’s a valid stance because most nonprofits, most people, don’t have an HR department and they can’t afford to respond to everyone,” she said. 

But, she added, “It’s critical to mention that in large print to make it clear that people may not get a response so they’re not sitting in a place of anger.” 

Jeremiah Roybal, who lives in Colorado Springs, started looking for a new job earlier this year. It was harder than he expected, and he felt some employers were leading him on or ghosting him. He finally started a new job in September — at a company that didn’t respond to him for six months. (Provided by Jeremiah Roybal)

Jeremiah Roybal, who lives in Colorado Springs, started looking for a new job when commissions were cut at his telecom sales job earlier this year. His background is in internet sales, so he applied at Comcast Xfinity, one of the largest internet providers in Colorado.

“I’ve had 20 years of experience in this (industry) so I figured I could get a job really quick, especially because everyone is hiring so fast,” said Roybal, who lives in Colorado Springs. “But it wasn’t like that. I actually went through four different types of roles for Xfinity and I got ghosted on a lot of them to where they’re like, ‘This position has been filled.’”

He applied elsewhere, and spread his search to Pueblo. Recruiters contacted him through LinkedIn, but those applications also seemed to go nowhere. He applied to 670 jobs. He heard back from “maybe six.” He’s still waiting to hear back from the U.S. Postal Service after applying in May.  

Getting strung along by Comcast recruiters, however, takes the cake. 

“I don’t know what it was, but every time I applied, I passed their tests (and then) I’d get an interview,” he said. “Then I would get an email saying that we had to reschedule. … Last time, (the recruiter) was like, ‘Let’s  just reschedule for Monday’ and I was like, ‘Well, Monday is a holiday.’ He’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re good. Let’s do it at 8:30.’ … But I never got an email from him (so) I called him back and I was like, ‘You know, it’s 8:30.’ ‘Oh yeah I forgot. Let’s do this after you get off work (at 5 p.m.)’. … So I called him at 5 and he’s like, ‘OK, let’s get this started.’ And then he’s like, ‘You know what? We already filled this position.’”

Comcast spokeswoman Leslie Oliver said she couldn’t address a particular applicant, but shared this comment: “At Comcast, we want every interaction with potential employees to be the best, and we’re sorry if that wasn’t the case.”

Roybal did get a sales job, but outside of the telecom industry. He applied for the opening in May and never heard a word back until three weeks ago, when a health care company called out of the blue and hired him to recruit traveling nurses. He started Sept. 13. 

“It’s not telecommunications, but it’s right down my alley,” he said. “I can get a job at McDonald’s tomorrow if I wanted to, but I’m looking for something that is going to provide for my family.

“I mean the jobs are there, but nobody’s actually hiring. It’s more like standing in line,” he said. “They don’t care about your requirements, they’re just trying to fill the role.”

The missing workers

Julie W., who lives in Berthoud, may be one of the missing workers. She moved to Colorado in July to join her boyfriend. With a bachelor’s degree in health care administration and management, she quit her job and applied to about 50 openings before the move, and 30 more since. 

“I have applied for positions at every clinic and hospital near me and receive emails stating they have hired someone else. Or I hear nothing. I feel I am applying for positions that match my experience and education level,” she emailed. “I have also applied for several county jobs as a navigator for benefits or case management to be told my bachelor’s degree does meet their minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree.”

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For others, the pandemic likely sped up personal decisions to retire early or stop working. Some theorize that older workers have retired early either because their stock or housing investments did well so they could afford to. Others have health concerns and aren’t comfortable returning to work while the delta variant is still out there.

There are parents, especially single mothers, who left because it didn’t make financial sense to pay for child care if their wages were too low. 

And that’s showing up in the data. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics demographic data, Colorado’s 2020 workforce was smaller than it was in 2019. The largest drop in working adults were women age 25 to 34. 

But another group that saw declines were older workers, with those age 65 and older exiting the labor force at a faster rate than workers age 35 to 64. 

That labor force participation rate doesn’t count those in prison, institutionalized, in nursing homes or in the military. Retirees and students and people under 16 are also excluded. It does count self-employed workers, independent contractors, farm workers and folks who work for their family’s business.

Some folks with a past said they’ve had a hard time getting hired. “Equal opportunity doesn’t always mean they will give you a chance with a criminal background,” emailed Harrison Ray, who said he was offered a server position at a casino but later was rejected after a background check revealed something he did 10 years ago.

There may also have been an impact last year when the Trump administration limited the number of foreign work visas during the pandemic, though farm workers were exempt. 

Another group exiting the workforce are people who are realizing that maybe they no longer need to work.

Dana Deason, who lives in the mountains, said she lost her high-pressure job as a licensed massage therapist during the pandemic. When she heard of an opening elsewhere, she immediately applied.

She didn’t get it. Now she’s thinking of stopping her job hunt.

“The weeks that my husband and I got to spend together during the safer-at-home time was so special that after applying for another high-stress job and not getting it, I’m reluctant to go back to that lifestyle where we’re both working so much that we never see each other,” she said in an email. “I wonder how many people feel like I do — I’m financially secure so why should I decrease my enjoyment of life with more work that isn’t fulfilling?” 

Julie W., meanwhile, said she applied to a coffee shop and a maid service. The maid service didn’t get back to her after a phone interview. She got the coffee gig for $11.50 an hour plus tips — or half her old wage. Fortunately, her former out-of-state employer needed help and offered her contract health care work. It supplements her coffee shop job, but she’s working seven days a week to pay her bills.

“It just makes no sense that in the current need of the state and how strained our health care system is, I can not find a job in health care or a relevant field. I have valuable experience and I am going to be making coffee,” she said, adding drolly, “maybe this time next year, I will be a manager of a coffee place.”


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