Skip to contents
Economy

What’s Working: A third-quarter check on Colorado’s economy and more on worker deaths and COVID

Inflation is on the rise, but not new business startups. Also: $600 million to pare down state’s $1 billion unemployment loan, Denver tops for wage growth and more!

Signs seeking emploees are hung in the windows of Natalia’s Restaurant on the corner of Blair Street and East 12th Street in downtown Silverton Colo. Friday October 1, 2021. (William Woody, Special to The Colorado Sun)
  • Credibility:

Twenty months into a pandemic that changed how people work — or think about what they want out of a job — the stats around Colorado’s economy appear mixed-to-dismal if you don’t have some perspective. But more on that below.

This wasn’t meant to be a sequel to last week’s column on worker deaths related to COVID-19 (here’s part one). But this week, the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment responded to my earlier questions and shared data on what they know about workers who died with COVID-19 as an underlying cause. 

One thing is for sure: Figuring out how many workers died due to COVID wouldn’t be possible if no one tracked the recent job status of the deceased. And, apparently, someone does do that! Funeral home staff and those who assist with the death certificate ask about occupations, according to state health officials. And that feeds into a chart that looks like this:

Between March 2020 and May, as many as 1,161 workers died with COVID as an underlying cause. This counts only people of working age between 16 and 64. It excludes people 65 and older who may have been employed. And it doesn’t mean everyone of working age had a job, said Kirk Bol, manager of the Vital Statistics Program. 

“We do not know if the decedent was employed at all at the time of death, nor whether they were employed in the stated occupation or industry at the time of death,” Bol said in an email. “However, by limiting the age group to 16-64 years of age, we expect the decedent to be more likely — though not certainly — to be employed in the stated occupation or industry at the time of death.”

And within the 1,161 deaths, some occupations aren’t normally part of the workforce. For example, 165 people, or 14%, were homemakers, students, retired or didn’t work due to a disability or other reason. They’re excluded from the labor force participation rate, which Colorado has seen in decline since April. 

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

This reduces the number of possible workers who died of COVID to less than 1,000, or fewer than most of the “missing workers” we’ve counted up in past columns like working moms, older workers, etc.

Another caveat is the lag in reporting data. The latest numbers are from May. Five months have passed since. And in those five months, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that 523 Coloradans between 18 to 64 died due to COVID. Overall, the CDC’s count of COVID deaths in this age group of Coloradans was 1,771, as of Nov. 3.

But while CDPHE’s 2021 data is provisional, the occupation and race data are pretty solid, Bol said. 

“Citing the high completeness of race/ethnicity (99%) and occupation/industry (95%), we consider these data relatively complete, and reliably representative of deaths in Colorado,” he said.

Data collected includes race, which The Gazette reported on last week by pulling out the high numbers of deaths among people of color in blue-collar occupations. I’ve added the full numbers in the chart so you can see the numbers and the impact on the various occupations.

What’s so great about drooping business starts?

According to the Colorado Secretary of State, new business filings were down in the third quarter, while the number of companies dissolving increased. Inflation was up, as were housing prices. And job growth has been sloooooow. 

But we’re still growing from the pandemic’s low, say economists Rich Wobbekind and Brian Lewandowski, with the Leeds Business Research Division at the University of Colorado, who teamed up Thursday with Secretary of State Jena Griswold to discuss Colorado’s economy.

“Our view is the recovery is pretty far along,” Wobbekind said. “At some point, businesses that were going to fail, probably need to fail … you need to have that churn. You need to have the new businesses come in. I was commenting that walking around the malls in Denver and Boulder, you’re starting to see new restaurants fill up spaces that old restaurants were in.”

There were fewer startups and more businesses called it quits, which may seem like an economic downer. But that’s not strange. The spike in the first half of the year, when new business filings hit record highs, that was the anomaly, Lewandowski said.

As for jobs, Colorado has added back 102,100 in the past year. But growth has slowed and it’s going to take the state longer to regain the other 78,400 jobs lost since January 2020. 

The positive spin? 

“We’re doing way better in this employment recovery than we did during the Great Recession,” Lewandowski said. “At this point in the Great Recession, we hadn’t even hit bottom yet.”

He credits federal COVID relief, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans for small businesses and federal unemployment benefits that provided workers with an income when so many businesses cut hours and operations. 

“Foreclosures are down and bankruptcies are down,” Lewandowski said. “We expected them to spike during the recession, but they didn’t, presumably because of a lot of federal programs that were rolled out, but that staved off a much worse crisis that we have observed in most of our past recessions.”

On the down side, Wobbekind said, inflation is alive and up. Consumer prices rose 0.3% in August and September in the Denver area. Home prices statewide grew 13.8% from the second quarter 2020 to 2021, making Colorado the nation’s 12th fastest in price growth. Gasoline prices increased 58% year over year, hitting an average of more than $3.60 a gallon on Oct. 25. Consumer demand has increased as shortages abound in several industries.

“I’m still concerned about inflation because of the supply chain issues and its impact on economic growth (and) impact on consumer confidence and whether or not the consumers continue to carry the economy. They certainly have the financial resources to do so,” Wobbekind said. “So most of the indicators still look strong. And we’re basing our view of the future based on that. Our econometric models that we run independent of this data still continue to show strong growth for Colorado in 2022.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

→ Unemployment claims drop: The further we get from the last day of federal jobless benefits (9 weeks now!), the more we’re returning to pre-pandemic unemployment activity. New weekly claims fell again last week, down 3.7% to 1,953 for the week ending Oct. 30. That’s near the 2019 weekly average of 1,900. The number of people still on regular unemployment dropped by three on Oct. 23, according to state labor department data.

A break on unemployment insurance

Employers are not looking forward to the day when they must start paying back $1 billion to the federal government. That’s the amount the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund has borrowed to pay unemployed workers after the fund was depleted in August 2020.

Last time it happened, it was the Great Recession. Employers saw their unemployment insurance rates skyrocket to cover the loan and restore the trust fund, which is used to pay benefits to eligible unemployed Coloradans. But after some creative thinking to create a bond, the money was paid back by May 2017. The fund had been replenished with $1.1 billion just before the pandemic hit.

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis makes a point during a news conference about Colorado offering coronavirus vaccinations to children, Thursday, Oct. 28, 2021, in Denver. Colorado is also seeing an increase in overall coronavirus cases, which is putting stress on the state’s hospital systems. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)

Earlier this week, Gov. Jared Polis proposed that the state use $600 million to restore the fund. Half would pay down the federal loan and the other $300 million would lower the employer surcharge. There’s still a lot due but that’s a start, said Tony Gagliardi, Colorado state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, in a statement.

“Our applause for the governor’s action does come with a few qualifications,” he said. “First, the Legislature must approve his wish and, second, more than $400 million will still be owed to the feds. So, businesses are not out of the woods yet on possibly having to pay more UI taxes down the road.”

We’ll follow the fate of the state’s unemployment trust fund as plans are surely being made to replenish it. Stay tuned.

→ More from Polis’s proposal: 

  • $50 million to offset costs businesses will have to implement the new paid family and medical leave program
  • $51 million invested into job training and apprenticeship programs to help employers find workers
  • Lower business filing fees to $1 for new businesses filings, renewals, trade name registration or renewals 
  • $30 million to create more child care options

→ Hey employers: Do you have a question about loan repayment or building up the trust fund again? Ask and I’ll get them answered: tamara@coloradosun.com

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Other labor bits

→ Federal vaccine mandate gets a start date: Long talked about, but finally announced this week, the federal rule that employers with 100 or more workers must require all employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID 19 or get tested weekly starts Jan. 4. >> U.S. Department of Labor memo

→ Amazon Flex checks: 3,105 Coloradans will split $1.5 million as part of the Federal Trade Commission’s settlement with Amazon for illegally withholding tips from its Amazon Flex drivers. Locals are among the 140,000 drivers affected between 2016 and 2019 who will share the $60 million. While the average payment is $422 and the median is $60, one unnamed driver is getting $28,000! Checks must be cashed by Jan. 7. And be on alert: The FTC won’t ask for any payment or personal data in order to cash the refund check. Questions? Call refund administrator Rust Consulting, at 1-800-654-8874 >> MORE

→ $5 million in grants to benefit employers and workers: A state grant program called COResponds is providing funds to help local workforce centers identify temporary COVID-19 job opportunities and people to fill them. If you need a temp job or workers, contact your local workforce center and ask them about the COResponds Disaster Recovery Grant. >> DETAILS

→ Did you know there’s a State Apprenticeship Agency? Colorado created it after the state legislature passed House Bill 1007. It’s still being set up, but scholarships are available for workers. >> DETAILS

The Small Business Employment Watch by market searches IHS Markit and Paychex put Denver at the top for annual wage growth nationwide, landing at a 5.5% increase in the past 12 months. (Screenshot)

→ Denver wage growth leads the nation, at least in one study. Market researchers Paychex and IHS Markit left Colorado out of every part of the Small Business Employment Watch except for one: Wage growth. And for that, the companies ranked Denver as the leading metro area for growth, up 5.51% in a year to $33.88 an hour. The reason? “Likely due to difficulty in hiring as (Denver’s) job index is in the bottom three with the weakest 12-month change rate.” >> MORE

→ Fake job alert: Speaking of scams, ProPublica reporter Cezary Podkul did a deep dive into fake job ads, including one that looking for an airport shuttle driver that pays $100,000 a year for 35 hours of work per week. >> STORY

→ A pay cut to work from home? A lot of people quit their jobs in August but why they did so is anyone’s guess (here’s ours). While recent surveys have the majority of respondents saying they’d consider a pay cut in order to keep their remote work status, Wired magazine reports that different wages are creating issues — and reduced output — among staff, as well as causing people to quit their jobs. >> STORY

→ Need help with house payments? Colorado rolled out a program this week that pays the monthly mortgage for struggling homeowners. The Emergency Mortgage Assistance Program offers up to three months of past-due or future payments (possibly more if you ask) to homeowners in Colorado. A program for renters providing up to 15 months of rent already exists. >> STORY

Have a job or labor news tip? Submit it to tamara@coloradosun.com


My inbox is always open so reach out if you have a story to share about your job hunting or hiring experience, or have a labor or small business concern that could benefit from the curious journalists. 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


We believe vital information needs to be seen by the people impacted, whether it’s a public health crisis, investigative reporting or keeping lawmakers accountable. This reporting depends on support from readers like you.