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Economy

What’s Working: Colorado is in economically better shape than most states, but still down 77,900 jobs from before COVID

Plus: State’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.6%, Colorado quits more than the rest of the U.S. and where the missing workers went.

  • Credibility:

In recent weeks, this column has delved into labor-shortage issues and identified who is part of the “missing” workforce. And we’ve found some of them! But more on that below. 

On Friday, it was the monthly dump of economic data from the Colorado Department of Labor and Employment. 

So, how is Colorado doing? 

Few local businesses are not actively seeking employees along Main Street in Breckenridge on Saturday, October 16, 2021. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Well, the state’s unemployment rate dropped to 5.6% in September, which makes Colorado higher than the national rate of 4.8%. About 900 people stopped working or looking for a job last month. And the state is still down 77,900 jobs since February 2020, which means we’ve regained nearly 80% of the jobs lost during those early COVID months of March and April 2020.

“That ranks as the 17th fastest rate of recovery in the nation over that period,” Ryan Gedney, senior economist at the labor department, said Friday. 

But recapturing those lost jobs has slowed in recent months, and that’s what we’ve got to watch out for, he said. In September, the state added just 5,100 non-farm payroll jobs, which ranked Colorado as the 17th nationwide for most jobs added last month. But that’s down from the state’s February-to-July average of 12,000 new jobs per month.

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

“If we continue at a pace of, say, adding 5,000 jobs per month, while that does match the pre-pandemic level of jobs added, it really needs to be two to two-and-a-half times higher than that to really get us back to those pre-pandemic levels of payroll employment by early next year,” Gedney said. “It’s certainly a trend we want to see reversed in terms of slower job growth.”

Perhaps employers are finally finding enough workers? Other job data released Friday by the Bureau of Labor Statistics showed there are fewer job openings nationwide and in the state. 

Colorado had 211,000 job openings in August, down 17,000 from July and also one of the largest declines nationwide. The BLS also highlighted Colorado’s increase in job separations in August compared to July — up 29,000 or 0.9%, which was one of the largest increases nationwide. 

And all that is separate from what this column shared last week: The U.S. reached a record rate of people quitting their jobs in August. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Now we have Colorado quitting data and it was much higher than the nation in August, which was before several vaccination mandates were put in place (and others had not yet gone into effect). While the nation was at 2.9%, Colorado landed at 3.4%, and had the ninth highest quit rate in the U.S. 

The ratio of job openings to the number of people unemployed is tightening, Gedney said. 

“It’s difficult to say when we’re looking at slower job growth what is the driver there,” he said. “I still think it’s the pandemic and when we see increased case rates, I think that’s a driver. But you can also see it in supply chain (problems), which can be a driver.”

→ Speaking of job openings, the state’s job board added nearly 20,000 job listings since last week, advertising 117,219 open jobs as of Oct. 23. >> ConnectingColorado.com

Eldora Mountain Resort in Boulder County provides season passes to employees. The resort has 120-180 positions to fill this season and pay starts at $15 an hour, which is “the bare minimum — many positions pay more,” said Sam Bass, marketing director. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

→ Free ski season pass to Eldora: The catch? You must get hired by Eldora Mountain Resort. The company has 32 jobs posted online and has 120-180 positions to fill. It’s hosting a job fair on Saturday, Oct. 23, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. at the Indian Peaks Lodge at the Eldora Mountain’s base area. Pay starts at $15 an hour, though some jobs pay more (like this full-time bus driver position at $22 an hour). The resort recommends applicants ride the RTD’s NB bus to Eldora from Boulder to attend the job fair. >> DETAILS

→ How about Nebraska? The Lincoln Journal Star reported that Nebraska has launched a $10 million campaign to attract workers. The state has 50,000 job openings, a median household income of $61,439 and now, a TV commercial, funded by federal CARES Act money. The campaign targets Kansas City, Denver, Chicago and Minneapolis, according to the report. There is no mention of whether Nebraska will pay you to move there, though, unlike some other states. >> STORY

Unemployment updates

It’s happening! Folks who learned last month that they were overpaid unemployment benefits and would have to pay back the extra are now seeing the demands reversed. The bulk of the 24,000 people stuck with these new bills were gig workers who needed to appeal and verify that they had already sent in the correct documents.

Michael Gulezian shared the result of his appeal. The CDLE notice said, “Information received substantiates your employment, self-employment or attachment to the labor force. Therefore you have met the requirements of Pandemic Unemployment Assistance.”


Michael Gulezian thought he’d have to pay back unemployment benefits after getting a letter from the state Department of Labor. But he realized he’d turned in the documents requested. So he appealed and his case was overturned in September 2021. (Provided by Michael Gulezian)

“It was a HUGE relief, but the experience left me exhausted,” Gulezian emailed this week. “I can’t express how stressful, frustrating and exasperating it was to deal with.”

Hopefully, we are nearing the end of the insanity that many on unemployment went through (and still are experiencing) to get their federal unemployment benefits. I’ll keep checking in, but if you missed the earlier reports on this and are still dealing with an overpayment, please file an appeal. 

CDLE’s appeals page

→ Weekly unemployment stats: The number of workers filing a first-time unemployment claim fell 10% to 2,176 for the week ending Oct. 16. The number of Coloradans still collecting a regular unemployment check, meanwhile, dropped 4.6% to 24,612 for the week ending Oct. 9. >> DETAILS

Missing worker recap

Like any wide-ranging issue, there’s not one answer to the question of where all the workers went. But there is data and there are personal anecdotes that point to what happened in Colorado.

One that doesn’t appear to be true? Missing workers are lazy because they are on federal subsidies. If you still believe that, the federal jobless benefit ended in Colorado seven weeks ago. That’s a long time to go without a paycheck.

It seems like a good time to recap past reporting on the missing workers and why other workers can’t find jobs. This is meant to be informative and may give workers, employers and the community ideas on how to better attract these missing groups of people. Here we go:

Who’s missing?

Older adults — About 5,000 workers age 65 or older left the workforce in 2020. Another 9,000 who left were closing in on retirement and between the ages of 55 and 64. At the same time, the population of workers age 55 and older grew by 40,000.

Mothers — Not enough data was collected in 2019 to compare the one-year impact of the pandemic. But compared to 2018, 2020 lost 21.3% of working women who maintain families. That’s another 26,000 people.

Younger workers — Workers ages 25 to 34 also saw a 3.2% decline, with women making up the majority. Common reasons are mothers and fathers with young children and few affordable child care options relative to their income. That was about 25,000 people last year.

College-age workers –– Workers between 20 and 24 also declined 3.2% in 2020, or about 10,000 people.

Gig workers — This isn’t really a missing group of workers. But in the past, these contractors, the self-employed and others who don’t pay unemployment insurance were excluded from some workforce data, like unemployment rates. But at a pandemic peak week, there were 188,027 Colorado gig workers collecting jobless benefits. If they’ve picked up new contract work because of the flexibility offered, that means they’re not applying for traditional jobs at restaurants, shops and other places.

People with disabilities — While Colorado-only stats weren’t available, people with disabilities hit more roadblocks last year. Unemployment rates grew to 12.6% in 2020, compared to those with no disability, at 7.9%. But a huge chunk of people with a disability weren’t even in the labor force — or 8 out of 10 last year, according to BLS data. 

The institutionalized — People considered institutionalized for purposes of data collection, including those in the military or living in nursing homes, aren’t counted as part of the labor force. This isn’t a group that is typically included in the data, but I thought I’d drop this here to remind readers what we’re dealing with. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Ex-convicts — Anecdotally, some workers with a criminal past have shared that their background has prevented them from getting a job. “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.

International workers — COVID put a stop on international travel and work visas, and that’s continuing to hit Colorado’s mountain resorts and tourist towns hard. The J-1 visa program that attracts international students to summer jobs in the state fell by 97% in 2020, or down to 214 visas compared with 6,844 in 2019.

Homeless and the evicted — Landlords evicted 15,651 tenants in 2020. We’re nearly at that number as of Oct. 20, according to the Colorado Judicial Branch. People who were evicted and considered homeless may still be working. But it becomes more challenging to apply or get a job when electricity isn’t reliable or an employer is not flexible. Some employers are willing to adapt. Even before the pandemic, Sexy Pizza, for example, added lockers for its employees experiencing homelessness. 

Quitters — As mentioned in last week’s column, people are quitting their jobs at a record rate. The August Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, aka JOLTS, put the national rate at 2.9%. Colorado’s, as mentioned above, was at 3.4%. Before the pandemic, the U.S. and state rate hovered around 2.4% in 2019. Explanations include people unsatisfied with their job or concerns about the continuing pandemic. Growth in personal wealth from stock market or real estate investments also gave workers a good reason to retire early. While there’s been a lot of coverage of people quitting jobs due to private vaccine mandates, such mandates didn’t really start in Colorado or the U.S. until September. 

Started a company — At the end of June, the Colorado Secretary of State recorded 157,300 filings to start a business in the prior 12 months. That’s a 26.3% increase from a year earlier. 

Workers have options — Employers are increasing wages to attract applicants, giving entry-level workers more choice. The Kitchen in Denver has a line cook job opening that pays $18 to $25 an hour and benefits. Amazon has a starting pay of $17 to $18 an hour at its Colorado warehouses. Wages are increasing in Colorado, and average hourly earnings went up $1.44 in September to $32.46, which is $1.61 more than the national average, according to the BLS business establishment survey.

Who else is missing? Let us know at tamara@coloradosun.com


What’s stopping workers from getting hired?

Personal stories from readers provide mostly anecdotal evidence that it’s not easy to get a job, no matter how desperate some employers seem to be. I’m still collecting job stories so please share to be vetted and added to this list. Some recent examples (edited for clarity):

Ageism: Probably the top complaint comes from people in their 50s, 60s and 70s with decades of experience who don’t get very far in the hiring process. Are you an employer willing to hire older workers? Tell me about it at tamara@coloradosun.com.

“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.” — Cat McQueen

Big City Burrito employee Debbie Graul prepares the food inventory ahead of lunch hour on Friday, May 21, 2021, in Fort Collins, CO. (Hugh Carey, The Colorado Sun)

Lack of experience, no training provided:

“I have also applied for several county jobs as a navigator for benefits or case management to be told my bachelor’s degree does not meet their minimum requirement of a bachelor’s degree.” —Julie W. in Berthoud. 

“Experience happens when you’re working, and if there’s such a hefty requirement, there should be paid training.” — Recent college graduate unsuccessful at finding an entry-level job at a tech or marketing startup — or even a local bookstore

Insanely picky

“Employers seem to be looking for an exact match and without that they are not considering a Swiss Army knife like me that can bring multiple skills to bear on an organization or opportunity.” —Dan K.

Wishy-washy hiring process

“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. … 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.” —Lisa Kunze, who has a master’s in education.

Unsustainable work schedules

“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  

Share your labor story: cosun.co/job-stories

Unwilling to adapt to a post-pandemic world

Andrew S. left his new remote-work job after two weeks because they asked him to come to the office. He happened to get another offer from a different employer that would let him continue working remotely. “I felt bad because they were counting on me, but I had to do what was right for me in the long term,” he said.

Unsustainable wages

“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. … Anyone working 40 hours a week should not be (living in) poverty. Period.” — Shawn Breaux, who is living in his car and won’t accept anything less than $20 an hour.

Nate M. said he has stuck with his job as a cashier at a gas station making $18 an hour after six years. “When I mentioned raising wages to my regional supervisor, he scoffed and complained that raising wages would just increase inflation,” he said. For what it’s worth, fast food restaurants, like In-N-Out Burger, offer starting pay at $17 an hour. 

Essential worker and caretaker Charmayne Phillips listens to speakers during a rally on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021, at the Colorado Capitol. Speakers advocated safe working conditions and living wages for essential workers through the second year of the COVID-19 pandemic. The state’s minimum wage remains $12.32. (Olivia Sun, The Colorado Sun)

Employer doesn’t take care of existing staff

“There are a lot of hard working people here in this town, but unless employers are willing to dig a bit deeper to retain their current employees and gain experienced and non-experienced employees willing to stay in their company. They need to be willing to increase their retention rate by increasing wages and spending less on constantly re-hiring.” — A registered medical assistant and working single mom in Pueblo who said her pay is similar to a dollar store or fast food restaurant.

Unfulfilling jobs

“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?” —Dana D., who is thinking about giving up after applying for jobs she’s qualified for with no success.

Too little, too late

Taking too long to hire isn’t a good strategy. Trevor Y. wrote in to say that he tried to be polite in responding to employers calls or interviews “but it got too overwhelming, especially once I made a decision and signed on somewhere.” 


We’ll dig into the new data more next week. Until then, share your job stories from an employer or employee perspective at cosun.co/job-stories. Keep well! ~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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